The awkward title of this good book, Giving Women, suggests some of the conceptual problems in its contents, while its subtitle, Alliance and Exchange in Victorian Culture, helps only somewhat. Jill Rappoport's book offers a wide-ranging perspective on the topic of how Victorian women organized and profited from various kinds of gift exchanges and credits them collectively with strategies to overcome Victorian prohibitions against women. Giving circumvents traditional routes to power and allows women to help the poor, to help themselves to the vote, to motherhood, to birth control. Rather than focusing on familiar ideologies of Victorian womanhood, the book explores ways that women circumvented barriers to make differences in the world and in themselves. "Giving," a present participle, indicates active exchanges. The book is not so much concerned with what constitutes a gift as it is with interchanges and movements, "giving" pushed to its lexical and figurative limits.
Giving Women starts with the premise that literary texts "reveal a more nuanced understanding of how giving can define relationships than either literary scholarship or theories of exchange" (p. 3). Using literary portrayals as inspiration, the author challenges such theorists of the gift as Marcel Mauss and Jacques Derrida. In pointing out that Derrida's principles do not apply when considering women's ways of giving, Rappoport deploys feminist strategies that place women in the center of the discourse.
In considering "middling classes of women," Rappoport discovers areas where women gain by energies of exchange (p. 3). Anthropological theory posits gifts as forming alliances through obligation; women's [End Page 231] giving becomes a tool for gaining power and authority. Here, readers may find themselves either dizzy or dazzled by the varieties of exchanges that Rappoport finds implicit in literal and figurative senses of the words "giving" and in "giving women." As such, giving encompasses almost everything involved in exchanges, including gifts from God, gifted writers, the gift of freedom, martyrdom, sacrifices, giving up, offering secrets, and sharing thoughts about others (gossip?). Giving often involves taking, as in taking pleasure and taking charge. Giving by and of women constitutes a powerful dynamic for constituting identity, community, and social change. The concept threatens to collapse under the weight of meanings.
The first chapter, on Victorian gift annuals, explores not only the phenomenal success of miscellanies as gifts, often by women to women, but also their content as gifts. Rappoport asserts, "Generosity seems to inhere in many of the contributions themselves," including not only the "giving forth" of prose but of philanthropic topics, such as building a church in South Africa and saving widows and slaves (p. 21). Many of the stories, she argues, promote generous impulses, such as a story of the gypsy mother converted to Christianity and made marriageable. Rappoport provides a different perspective on the proselytizing sentimentality that might dismiss such writings, deeming them not as generous gifts but as homogenized, feel-good opportunities. Reading tales of oppression, some readers might be moved to action. Abolition activism, Rappoport points out, coincided with the popularity of the abolitionist matter in annuals. Synchrony does not argue for a causal relationship. Rappoport stretches the bounds of meaning, moving from writing about slaves to freeing them: "As a gift, abolition was an intimate, personal offering" (p. 29). Sentimental reading might change hearts and minds, as the Victorians and Rappoport believe.
Subsequent chapters examine a Victorian world—fictional and actual—through the lens of gifts to and by women. Jane Eyre (1847) can be considered "a large-scale attempt at taking time to consider the gift and its power to shape relationships" (p. 45). In Cranford (1853), a "system of gift exchange . . . reworks material limitations, turning these women's lack of extensive private property to their advantage" (p. 68). Rappoport believes that telling secrets as a form of giving creates a circuit of sympathy resembling the first law of thermodynamics. In Goblin Market (1862), survival through sisterly generosity draws upon religious metaphors mingled with parables about market economy: saving and salvation, sisterhoods and sisters. The figurative language...