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Giving Women: Alliance and Exchange in Victorian Culture by Jill Rappoport (review)

From: Victorian Periodicals Review
Volume 46, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 279-281 | 10.1353/vpr.2013.0013

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In Giving Women: Alliance and Exchange in Victorian Culture, Jill Rappoport does an outstanding job of defending her “conviction that giving did not necessarily entail giving up” (viii). In her compelling introduction, her six thoroughly documented and carefully reasoned chapters, and her epilogue, which describes a “politics of generosity,” she explains the ways in which women have benefitted from gift giving (171–73). She includes women from fiction and history, beginning in the 1820s and extending to 1918, when women were granted the right to vote. She attributes this victory to “discourses of women’s gifts as well as women’s rights, benefiting from the very images of exchange that this book has traced” (173). Throughout her study, Rappoport alludes to Jane Eyre’s comment to Rochester that a “present has many faces to it, has it not? and one should consider all before pronouncing an opinion on it.” Her convincing and fascinating study leads her readers to consider these many “faces.”

In part one, Rappoport explains how giving gifts and giving of themselves allowed women during the first part of the nineteenth century to “galvanize social networks” without risking the scarce resources they possessed (14). Chapter one discusses annuals and gift books as “literary offerings” that promote women’s giving and “allow some women to imagine and begin to construct their own alliances out of mutual, reciprocal exchanges even before popular women’s writing challenged property laws more directly” (44). Chapter two discusses Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1857) as “stories about social interaction, about the economic relationships that each forms or discards” (46). Both Jane and Aurora “use gifts to search out and create better alliances, developing and reconstituting mutually beneficial relationships as much as their own independent self-worth” (47). Chapter three discusses how Elizabeth Gaskell, in Cranford (1851–53), “envisions a system of gift exchange capable of constructing and more full sustaining a larger network of single women” (67). Both “public knowledge and the fiction of private secrets create membership in the Cranford community and also contribute to a model for an (imagined) women’s community beyond the textual borders of the novel” (84).

In part two, Rappoport demonstrates that during the second part of the century, as women gained property rights and entered new professions, they transformed “these economic opportunities into empowering displays of expenditure, even as the language of sacrifice insulated them from accusations of self-interest” (14). Chapter four, “The Price of Redemption in ‘Goblin Market,’” focuses on the silver penny that simultaneously ties currency to Lizzie’s correct modes of behavior and links her to religious models of “unpaid and beneficent exchange, placing her in a symbolically significant gift economy that emphasizes the saving power of sisterhood”(101). And even though Christina Rossetti also shows that “financial transactions associated with market capitalism were frequently risky business for women,” Rappoport observes that “in the verses it coins, as in the coin it subverts, ‘Goblin Market’ shows how gift offerings—of poetry, of religious service, of sisterly sacrifice—can be pleasures for giver and recipient alike, as much a realization of the self as its repudiation” (105). In this chapter, Rappoport looks at several aspects of gift giving in new and unusual ways which draw on both mainstream and obscure Victorian periodicals. For example, she discusses the Anglican lay sisters of the St. Mary Magdalene’s Penitentiary in Highgate in a section entitled “Sisterhood ‘Beyond the Reach of Any Remuneration,’” using quotes from the Lady’s Newspaper, Dublin Review, Fraser’s Magazine, Athenaeum, John Bull, Bengal Catholic Herald, and Achill Missionary Herald, and Western Witness.

Chapter five treats the “Slum Sisters” of the early Salvation Army, who “wrote about and enacted forms of sacrifice in order to build community and indulge safely in their growing consumer desires under the auspices of social service. Sacrifice (of clothing and class, safety and even selfhood) actually enabled these women to consolidate both their own robust subjecthood and a larger active sisterhood” (106). In this chapter, Rappoport discusses photographs and illustrations from the Salvation Army Heritage Center in intriguing ways to illustrate how the “Army’s readership consumed abundant images...



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