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Reviews Laura Peters, Orphan Texts: Victorian Orphans, Culture andEmpire. Manchester : Manchester UP, 2000. vii + 158. 40 pounds. Laura Peters's Orphan Texts considers the figure of the orphan in Victorian literature and society with an eye to understanding why it is so pervasive. The central argument of the book is that the "prevalence of the orphan can be explained by the central role which the family played at the time. If orphans needed a family the family needed orphans" (1). The family needed orphans, Peters argues, because it was "in crisis" and "in order to reaffirm itself the family needed a scapegoat," one which it found in the orphan figure. In the introductory chapter Peters positions her work on the orphan in the context of the much more developed body of scholarly literature devoted to the family and childhood during the Victorian period, and it is this group of scholars—those working on Victorian domesticity—for whom Peters's study would be extremely useful. Pointing to "the dearth of criticism" on the orphan, she asserts the need to "consider the lived experience of the orphan during this time," before turning to more literary representations of orphanhood. Providing statistics on the number of orphans in England and Wales during the period, and identifying the governmental agencies that presided over the care of orphans—the Poor Law Board and the Board of Guardians—the chapter then proceeds to elaborate the conceptual model the book will deploy. Drawing on Derrida's idea of the pharmakon as that agent which acts as both poison and cure, and Freud's concept of the uncanny as what marks that which is simultaneously familiar and foreign, Peters extends this supplementary logic to include the orphan. "I intend to argue," she writes, "that the orphan played a pharmaceutical function in Victorian literature: the orphan embodies a surplus excess to be expelled to the colonies" (19). Chapter 2, entitled "Difference Within," elaborates three frames within which to read popular orphan literature. Peters identifies these as the discourse of the foundling, with all of its attendant anxieties about unknown parentage, legitimacy, and inheritance; the discourse Victorian Review103 Reviews of the foreigner or travelling peoples, which poses a threat to the idea of rootedness, home, and hearth, all of which are constitutive components of Victorian domesticity; and the discourse of the orphan as criminal, which arose in response to "cultural anxiety that children and orphans were becoming criminals through neglect" (39). Peters then reads the figure of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heightsthrough the lens of these three discursive frames, and argues that Heathcliff, embodying the supplementary logic of her theoretical schema, ultimately "remains unknowable and unassimilable." Moreover, Peters suggests, in Heathcliff's son lies the certainty that the "difference remains within" (60). Chapter 3 takes up examples of popular orphan adventure narratives —The Orphan Sailor, The Orphan'sIsle, and The Orphan of Waterloo —in order to advance an argument about the kind of cultural work that was done by this particular genre of "imperial juvenile literature." Suggesting that the orphan sailor "does the work of empire," Peters contends that "whether working in the imperial economy or defending the empire on the high seas . . . the orphan sailor is crucial to the defence of empire, the centre of which, ironically, is the very Victorian family structure in which he could not find a place" (61). The fourth chapter provides an historical context for the treatment of orphans during the Victorian period by considering the various schemes that were hatched to emigrate orphans to such far flung reaches of empire as Bermuda, New South Wales, and Canada. "Orphanhood became a vehicle for emigration," argues Peters, "in a scheme which would both rid Britain of its surplus population and setde the colonies with white stock" (143). The remainder of the chapter includes an extended and careful reading of Rose Macauley's OrphanIsland(1924), in the context of the previously elaborated emigration schemes, and draws out the text's preoccupation with issues such as class, race, ethnicity, nationhood, and colonization. The fifth and final chapter, entided "Exile and return," reads Eliot's DanielDeronda and Dickens' Mysteryof Edwin Droodvnth an eye to the ways in which "discourses of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 103-106
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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