When the call for papers for this issue went out, it was first imagined as a collection about eighteenth-century English Catholic women writers. The focus shifted to “Eighteenth-Century Women and English Catholicism” in response to the excellent submissions, which reveal a great deal about our current understanding of the amorphous nature of what Catholicism meant in the long eighteenth century (and in the early modern period more broadly). The idea of a Catholic woman suggests more certainty than these essays reveal. What would it mean to be a Catholic woman writer when confessional identity was so often in flux in the period? Instead, these essays suggest that many women writers wrote in some vexed, hard-to-pin-down relationship to Catholicism, whatever their professed confessional identity. These essays even suggest that it was almost impossible not to engage Catholicism in one way or another. In her detailed study of Mary Blount, Duchess of Norfolk, Clare Haynes even makes us attend to the word “English” in the issue title.1 What is particularly English about the Duchess of Norfolk’s Catholicism?
As with all identity categories, the fundamental question is who is included as Catholic and on what grounds. Who decides who counts as a Catholic? When Diane Long Hoeveler discusses whether or not Regina Maria Roche was “in fact a Roman Catholic,” she assigns a stability and certainty to that identification that many of the other essays here cast into doubt.2 Because anti-Catholic prejudice was widespread, as all of these essays agree, and because there were penalties for going on the record as a recusant, people with Catholic sympathies or affiliations had good reason to conceal them. Furthermore, the boundaries between confessional categories were not as distinct as “was she/wasn’t she” might suggest. It was possible to have Catholic sympathies even if one did not engage in the practices that put one on the record as a recusant—and compromised inheritance, for instance. Indeed, we have abundant evidence that some people outwardly conformed to the Church of England but engaged in private devotions or held heterodox beliefs; that married couples divided the labor of recusancy with men conforming and their wives recusing [End Page 237 ] themselves because penalties for their recusancy were lesser; and that many people’s spirituality was eclectic, combining supposedly disparate beliefs and practices. According to Joanne E. Myers, for example, Catholic casuistry remained part of Catherine Trotter’s “imaginary” even after she converted back from Catholicism to the Church of England.3 Choosing to shift her confessional allegiance did not lead Trotter to empty her conceptual resources and start over. Rather, she kept what she found useful or compelling, resulting in a kind of composite confessional identity. The cases of Trotter and Jane Barker both remind us of the frequency of conversions to and from Catholicism.4 For those who converted to Catholicism, it was not old but new, perhaps even fashionable, especially in the courts of Charles II’s and James II’s Catholic wives. In one of Barker’s poems, a Friend accuses Fidelia of such an au courant conversion: “You chang’d your faith, to be in the court mode, / For fashion sake you change and eat your God.”5 Conversions remind us that an “old” faith could accrue new meanings and attractions in changing circumstances.
Just as what it meant to be a Catholic varied across time and from person to person, so a given individual’s confessional allegiance was subject to change—and to misinterpretation. When Michael Tomko points to Catholics’ awareness of a division between who they were and how they were perceived, he identifies a double consciousness that arguably is central to what it meant to be Catholic in post-Reformation England.6 While maintaining a “double character” might be typical of persecuted minorities, it had special meaning for Catholics because of the persistent association with practices of secrecy that was imposed upon them and then held against them: building hiding places into their homes for hunted priests, making chapels invisible from the outside, speaking only part of a truth and withholding the...