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

  • 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. 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 Rappoport had given more attention to the broader implication of her readings for narrative theory. As it is, her re-thinking of the Bildungsroman in Jane Eyre and Aurora Leigh enables her to place the often uncategorizable Cranford (1851) within what she seems to be suggesting might be an established tradition of community-focused novels organized less by forward moving self-realization than by the circling reciprocity of giving. The second part of Giving Women shifts the focus from balanced to asymmetrical giving, or giving that at least appears not to require an equal return. The first chapter in this section, through a reading of Christina Rossetti’s 1859 poem “Goblin Market,” positions self-sacrifice in the market. The following three chapters provide historical examples of how women gifted themselves into the public sphere. It is in her discussion of the Salvation Army, “New-Woman eugenics” (139) and women’s suffrage that Rappoport offers a significant challenge to the history of feminism. Here, Rappoport criticizes previous historians and literary critics for anachronistically reading their own political commitments onto the nineteenth century. Our own “distaste for older models of gendered ‘capacities’” (171), Rappoport writes, has stood in the way of our “understanding of the women’s movement and its relationship to a history of nineteenth-century authorship …

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