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Jill Rappoport. Giving Women: Alliance and Exchange in Victorian Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. ISBN: 978-0199772605. Price: US$65.00/£40.00.[Record]

  • Ariana Reilly

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  • Ariana Reilly
    Princeton University

In Giving Women: Alliance and Exchange in Victorian Culture, Jill Rappoport traces an unexpected and fascinating alternative history of the women’s movement that she locates in nineteenth-century gift-giving by and between women. Without opportunities to earn their own income or, in many cases, control their own property, the women in Giving Women find ways to enter the “volatile and profitable economic negotiations of power” (5) through the meaningful exchange of small and spectacular gifts. By giving, Victorian women expanded the public reach of their private relationships. Over the course of the century, these women became more and more creative in the giving of gifts, eventually using networks of giving women as powerful bases of political activism. Though Rappoport refers to anthropological and philosophical gift theories (especially those of Jacques Derrida and Marcel Mauss) throughout her book, her study is far from dependent on these paradigms. Rather, Rappoport theorizes from the texts themselves. Working from canonical texts, ephemera, political magazines, New Woman fiction, and a host of other materials, Rappoport tailors her theory of “giving women” to the unique position of middle-class women in the nineteenth-century, and in so doing, maintains a (sometimes) tenuous balance between historical specificity and contemporary critique. There are moments, as in her discussion of abolitionist rhetoric in the stories of literary annuals, where Rappoport’s tendency to move back and forth between lived experience and ideology makes the argument seem inconclusive. However, her sensitivity to the gains and losses on both sides of any exchange generally work dramatically in her favor. Rappoport seems uniquely gifted with the ability to temper her suspicion with sympathy and her sympathy with suspicion. Giving Women is divided into two sections. The first considers how single women expanded kinship circles, manipulated property laws, and increased the value of limited resources by means of what Rappoport refers to as “balanced” (7) gift exchanges, or exchanges where the giver is (eventually) repaid so that the accounts are always balanced. The first chapter in this section sets the political tone of the book, and moves quickly from a consideration of the practice of gifting literary annuals as a sign of friendship to analyzing the role annuals played in abolitionist circles on both sides of the Atlantic. In the pages of the annuals, freedom was often portrayed as a gift charitably given, often by privileged white women to their less privileged black sisters. Unsurprisingly, however, this gift often came with a price. As a gift, freedom indebted former slaves to their generous benefactors, even when those benefactors were their former masters. Even as Rappoport condemns the insidious effects of gift discourse in the case of abolitionism, she simultaneously draws our attention to the fact that it was in part because of this troubled discourse that women were able to infiltrate the world of political activism in the first place, setting a precedent for continued political involvement. Chapters two and three deviate slightly from this public focus, turning instead to how gifts supported small communities of women by enabling them to share scarce resources. While Rappoport maintains the political importance of even this small-scale community building, what makes these two chapters stand out in the book are her arguments, not about politics, but about narrative. Rappoport boldly questions the critical consensus that Jane Eyre (1847) and Aurora Leigh (1856) are novels about individualization. Rather, by focusing on the role gifts play not only in cementing romantic relationships but in cementing sisterly relationships as well, Rappoport argues that these novels privilege the community over the individual. Indeed, the implications of this argument are so suggestive that one wishes ...