“Giving women” were more than the altruistic subjects of philanthropy or passive objects of heterosexual exchange that they often become in anthropological traditions, or the literary criticism based on these anthropological accounts. When Bleak House’s Esther becomes her guardian’s “gift” to her new husband, the novel appears to enact a form of “giving women” familiar to theorists from Marcel Mauss to Eve Sedgwick: it makes a selfless woman the object of men’s transactions, joining families by creating reciprocal obligations. But this is only part of the story. Gifts also construct the female networks that, in Bleak House and other literature of the period, include cherished friends, dangerous intimacies, and surrogate children. Nineteenth-century writing encouraged women to participate actively in gift exchange in order to become agents of their own alliance formation.
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