Giving Women: Alliance and Exchange in Victorian Culture

Giving Women: Alliance and Exchange in Victorian Culture

Giving Women: Alliance and Exchange in Victorian Culture

Giving Women: Alliance and Exchange in Victorian Culture


Altruism and self-assertiveness went hand in hand for Victorian women. During a period when most lacked property rights and professional opportunities, gift transactions allowed them to enter into economic negotiations of power as volatile and potentially profitable as those within the marketsystems that so frequently excluded or exploited them. They made presents of holiday books and homemade jams, transformed inheritances into intimate or aggressive bequests, and, in both prose and practice, offered up their own bodies in sacrifice. Far more than selfless acts of charity or suresigns of their suitability for marriage, such gifts radically reconstructed women's personal relationships and public activism in the nineteenth century.Giving Women examines the literary expression and cultural consequences of English women's giving from the 1820s to the First World War. Attending to the dynamic action and reaction of gift exchange in fiction and poetry by Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Christina Rossetti as well as in literary annuals, Salvation Army periodicals, and political pamphlets, Rappoport demonstrates how female authors and fictional protagonists alike mobilized networks outside of marriage and the market. Through giving, women redefined the primary allegiances of theireveryday lives, forged public coalitions, and advanced campaigns for abolition, slum reform, eugenics, and suffrage.


“Accept them, lady—to me they are valueless. I will never wear jewels

“You are then unhappy,” said Rowena, struck with the manner in which
Rebecca uttered the last words. “O remain with us […], and I will be a
sister to you.” —Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1819)

“[A] present has many faces, has it not? and one should consider all before
pronouncing an opinion as to its nature.” —Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

“If you’ll be true to me, Lucy, in this business, I’ll make you the hand
somest present you ever saw in your life. I’ll give you a hundred guinea
brooch;—I will, indeed.” [….]

“You mean thing!” said Lucy. “I didn’t think there was a woman so mean
as that in the world.[….] Pick up what I hear, and send it you in letters,—
and then be paid money for it!” —Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds

Jane Eyre’s cautious deliberation over presents is only one of many Victorian attempts to contemplate the dangers and pleasures of gift exchange for women of the middling classes. As this brief sampling suggests, gifts throughout nineteenthcentury British literature and culture set the terms for kinship, threaten heroines with obligations they cannot repay, and create conditions for bribes. Such disparate scenes as Scott’s, Brontë’s, and Trollope’s reveal a far more nuanced understanding of how giving can define relationships than those that currently influence either literary scholarship or theories of exchange. Gifts and giving pervade the nineteenth-century popular imagination, but our studies of the Victorians have not yet assessed their significance, either to the women who are frequently depicted as objects and agents of exchange or to the broader society reflected and shaped by them. Through giving, women engaged in and helped to fashion . . .

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