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  • The Tyranny of Gift Giving:The Politics of Generosity in Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall and Sir George Ellison
  • Julie McGonegal

Samuel Johnson defines the gift as at once a "bequest, endowment, or alms given to the poor"; as an inheritance; and as anything "bestowed without a price; an obligation, offering, bribe."1 This conflation of the term with concepts such as loan, favour, debt, and duty complicates, as does much of the literature of the period, the apparent simplicity and selflessness of the gift. Throughout the eighteenth century, an ideology of benevolence manifested itself in an interest in charitable gift giving, in a concern with the state regulation of charity, and in the exchange of women in marriage. However, critical analyses of gift relations in England and English literature have focused primarily on donations and less on economic and social exchange more generally, with the overall effect of undermining the impact of gift-related behaviours on eighteenth-century culture. Although writers of the period fancied themselves living in an "Age of Benevolence," this article interrogates eighteenth-century cultural practices of benevolence through a close reading of Sarah Scott's Millenium Hall and Sir George Ellison in order to recast the period as one not of benevolence, but of duty and obligation arising from [End Page 291] hegemonic upper-class and paternal authority. Cultural texts, such as novels, poetry, plays, and political tracts, provide an important point of departure for re-examining the relationship between generosity and obligation in eighteenth-century England, a task that involves treating texts as ideological documents that present, and sometimes challenge, the collective fantasy that surrounds gift-giving practices.2 Scott's novels provide a particularly appropriate place for such an investigation because their representation of the gift intersects with a number of the period's social and economic concerns, such as authority, gender, labour, property, and marriage.

Scott's novels unfold in the historical context of the transition during the mid-eighteenth century from a so-called traditional court culture to what has been alternately termed mercantile or agrarian capitalism. To this end, the novels examine not only the court tradition of treating the female body as property but also the rise, complication, and confusion of affective relations in a market-based economy.3 Millenium Hall proceeds by way of several life narratives, each implicitly questioning the symbolic definition of women as gifts in courtship practices of the period, as well as exposing how gift exchange functions both to define women as property and foster a form of female obligation. The novel's creation of an all-female household, which Nanette Morton describes as "a re-ordering of the eighteenth-century economy of power," attests to Scott's imaginative resistance to the ways in which gift-giving practices support a symbolic paternal authority. I agree with Morton's contention that Millenium Hall profoundly redefines the role of women by shifting the woman's body from "an object of spectacle and exchange to one in which her 'value' rests upon her utility and ability to survey,"4 and, as I argue in this article, Scott's novel enacts a fantasy of authority that, through presenting the woman as a powerful agent in the gift economy, seeks to empower gentry women through aligning generosity with [End Page 292] the feminine. The question of female agency complicates acts of gift giving in Sir George Ellison as well, where, significantly, the extensive program of social reform instigated by the women of Millenium Hall is imitated by the eponymous male character.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Scott's critique of the disadvantages of the gift economy for gentlewomen in these novels does not extend to a critique of the manipulation and exploitation of the labouring classes through acts of giving. Certainly Scott was always the reformist, and the charitable gifts that Millenium Hall and Sir George Ellison veil under the aegis of moral duty are, undoubtedly, designs for producing and preserving a social and economic system that privileges the gentry class to which Scott belonged; to this extent, they might be said to inflict the gentle, invisible form of violence that, according to Pierre Bourdieu, gifts to the socially and economically...