This text is an earlier version of a review published in Scriblerian, 36:1 (August 2003): 58-59.
Anne Kelley. Catharine Trotter: An early modern writer in the vanguard of feminism. Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2002. Pp. vi + 279. $79.95.
In a combative book, Ms. Kelley surveys Catherine Trotter Cockburn's reputation,1 texts and career, in order to prove that this "early modern writer" is not "obscure, dull and narrow-minded" and to "reposition [her] as a radical feminocentric writer." Relentlessly defensive, Ms. Kelley hardly concedes that Trotter could have misunderstood something or that Trotter's texts have any flaws. The inflexible tone which she attributes to Trotter replaces an older distortion with a new single-mindedness.
Throughout, consistency and a prudential feminism that eschews sexual unconventionality are virtues in themselves. Ms. Kelley argues that "the school of feminist criticism which advocates that women reject the traditional rational male discourse as part of the phallocentric structure in favour of a more emotional writing based on the female body," is "simplistic," returns women to society's "margins," and deprives them of respect. For her, Trotter's "unwavering" adherence to "rational morality" provides a solution for complicated human dilemmas and will be taken seriously in public debate. Ms. Kelley repeatedly characterizes Trotter as "adamently opposed" to positions other than her own: Trotter's seemingly tireless rebuttals in her argumentative essays on writers who attacked Locke and Samuel Clarke are presented as a matter of Trotter's holding onto to an argument. Trotter's "project [is] to demonstrate that women [can] speak with intellectual authority." According to Ms. Kelley, Trotter never deviates from a feminist pragmaticism that allows a woman to yield to her body's urges only insofar as is consistent with a self-controlled resolve to avoid social disapproval. When Trotter herself and her female characters think and behave in the "rational" (prudential) way men do, this shows women how to be powerful and respected.
Trotter's texts are flattened and outrageous emotional convolutions and logical perversities praised. We are to admire The Unhappy Penitent (1701) because its heroine demands that the hero obey what he has contracted to do no matter what the result; The Revolution of Sweden (1706) is praised because its heroine "prioritises the welfare of her country over her personal feeling" (and ends up murdered for her pains). Ms. Kelley dismisses those readers who find lesbianism in Trotter and Sarah Lady Piers's correspondence and Trotter's Agnes de Castro (1696); I suggest we can make poignant moral sense of this tragedy by paying attention to the profound revulsion against coerced heterosexual contact that fills the soliloquies of all the woman characters in Trotter's plays who (as Ms. Kelley says) turn to other women for support and comfort. Ms. Kelley mischaracterizes Piers's letters to the young Trotter when she says the affection displayed is "rhetorical rather than literal." Piers's letters jar the reader with the writer's awkward apologies as she voices her passionate inability to stop herself from uttering what she says Trotter will see as a transgression.
Behind Trotter's repetitiveness, abstraction from experience, and austere impersonality is a woman who endured ridicule, low status, and, in reaction, was inclined to sudden identifications with admired people and to passionate loyalties. In her youth, she converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism and back again; in her later years she writes as a woman who married because she had to, and has lived in isolated poverty: the strained content of her essays represent her way of asserting a barricaded self-respect. In Trotter's letters we see how limited were her choices, and the rejections her position inflicted on her. Ms. Kelley analyzes a poem by Trotter to reveal that Trotter identified with "the dilemma faced by poor and obscure men like [Stephen] Duck," but does not connect this identification with Trotter's intense presentation of her self.
The encouraging contemporary and heartening twentieth-century interest in Trotter (which Ms. Kelley records) suggests that Trotter engages her readers. The symbolically epistolary Olinda's Adventures focuses on a young woman who is offered only exploitative choices and manages to hold onto a modicum of peace and respectability by distancing herself from everyone but her correspondent. Ms. Kelley cites a preface to the 1693 edition of the romance to suggest the last two letters which undermine and provide the book's present, unexpected, and yet conventional ending are not by Trotter. Trotter's comedy, Love at a Loss, or Most Votes Carry It (1701), has lively woman characters who in order to achieve even a limited private freedom of conduct view men as potential enemies against whom they have to form alliances, lie or dominate emotionally. Their fates expose the lie that breaking taboos must destroy a woman's life: one of Trotter's heroines has sexual intercourse before marriage and is not punished for it at all. Trotter has an attractive living voice; we hear it when she writes sarcastically as a bealeaguered woman to reverse interpretations conventional in her period and still popular today, as, for example, when she characterizes Etheredge's The Man of Mode as a play where "Deceit's a jest, false vows are gallantry," and means it when she advises the aspiring poet: "Let ev'ry Dorimant appear a knave."
It is to be regretted that Ms Kelly's book is so defensive that Trotter's authentic problems and voiced responses, analogously still with us today, can be discerned only with difficulty from this study. Ms. Kelley's reaction to the prejudice which Trotter's work, personality and life story face has made her unwilling to analyze or present Trotter's vulnerabilities frankly, but it is in the context of these that we can best hear, understand and admire Trotter.
George Mason University
Jan Lievens (1607-1674) Old Woman Reading (or with a head scarf, ca. 1630s):