Skip to content

The accumulated and single: modernity, inheritance and orphan identity

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)

Like the orphan figure, literary modernism can be characterised by its complex and often contested relations with the past, especially the Victorian past, whose influences were still palpable. Modernist responses range from the rejection of inherited values, distilled in the injunction to “Make it New!” to the embrace of the past seen in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”. Similarly, literary orphan figures modulate between attempts at self-fashioning and the impulse to (re)create or trace their relation to their inheritance. This essay traces the varying ways in which the relationship between the accumulation of inheritance and the attempt to innovate and change are teased out in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1936)) and Linda Grant’s When I Lived in Modern Times (2000). Nightwood makes use of the narrative of Felix Volkbein to reach into the past as a way of coming to terms with inheritance and in this, approaching the future. Conversely, Grant’s When I Lived in Modern Times examines the effects of the last vestiges of Victorian treatment of both orphans and “wayward women” and explores the extent to which Modernist idealism can really function as an escape from that inheritance.


Nina Auerbach’s observation that “the orphan is born to himself and establishes his own social penumbra” (p 395) plays out very differently in each of these texts, in ways which can be read as commenting upon and critiquing the mores of their contemporaneous societies. So, Felix Volkbein, the orphan whose narrative opens Nightwood, is made more vulnerable by being born into anti-Semitic fin de siècle Vienna. Orphaned at birth and defined as a Jew by the narrative voice - although his mother was Christian and his father is “cut off from [his] people” (p 4) - Felix struggles to recuperate his relationship to the past as a means of creating a future for himself and his family. When I Lived in Modern Times examines the idealistic impulse to “Make it New!” by tracing the narrative of Evelyn Sert, a secular Jewish orphan who moves from London to Mandate Palestine, to escape the past and to define herself as the “daughter of a new Zion” (p 4). At the start of the novel, Evelyn is in search for a place that is “…above all modern” (p1): a modernity that she effectively defines as the absence of the past. Initially, she thinks that she has found this modernity in the clean lines of the New Internationalist architecture of the “White City” of Tel Aviv although, as I shall argue, the ensuing narrative suggests that past cannot be escaped.


Whether they attempt to recuperate, renegotiate or escape the accumulations of the past, the orphan figures in all three texts demonstrate the pervasive presence of the question of inheritance in the formation of identity and in the individual’s relation to culture and society.

Texts discussed: Djuna Barnes, Nightwood and Linda Grant When I Lived in Modern Times.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRereading Orphanhood
Subtitle of host publicationTexts, Inheritance, Kin
EditorsDiane Warren, Laura Peters
PublisherEdinburgh University Press
Chapter10
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)9781474464369
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2020

Publication series

NameEdinburgh Critical Studies in Victorian Culture
PublisherEdinburgh University Press

Related information

Relations Get citation (various referencing formats)

ID: 16159323