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Catharine Trotter and the Claims of Conscience
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In her day, Catharine Trotter—later Cockburn—enjoyed a divided reputation, dogged by rumors of licentiousness even as she was alternately praised and mocked for her erudition. “I read Aristotle in his own Language,” proclaims Calista, a character in the anonymous The Female Wits; or the Triumverate of Poets at Rehearsal (1696) generally seen to represent Trotter; she adds, “The Translation may alter the Expression.” Delarivier Manley was initially supportive of Trotter, but she turned her satiric wit on her friend in both The New Atalantis (1709), which shows Trotter embroiled in flirtations with men and women alike, and in The Adventures of Rivella (1714), which also names Trotter “Calista” and accuses her of both prudery and adultery. Even during the years when Trotter was enmeshed in London’s theatrical scene, however, she was writing work that garnered her a letter of acknowledgment from John Locke: her defense of his Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690). Despite this relatively high-profile career and her varied output—which embraced prose fiction, drama, and philosophical writings—Trotter has tended to receive relatively scant critical attention. As Anne Cline Kelley has pointed out, most commentators have followed her contemporaries in focusing either on her scandalous ties to the libertine theatrical culture of the Restoration or on her subsequent image as a pious learned lady (pp. 11-25).

Recent, more nuanced scholarship on Trotter has sought to push beyond these stereotypes to establish her importance in Restoration culture but retains something of a divided emphasis. Some commentators, highlighting her importance as a woman writer, have pointed out Trotter’s advocacy of rational female friendship or her exposure of the violence inherent in patriarchal power. Others argue that Trotter, though a defender of Locke and Samuel Clarke, also makes a unique philosophical contribution of her own, offering arguments about the disinterested nature of moral obligation and the intrinsically authoritative character of natural law. These valuable contributions, however, still leave avenues for further research. Trotter’s religious beliefs, for example, have rarely been discussed by critics. Raised in the Church of England, Trotter converted early to Catholicism and then returned to the Anglican fold sometime around 1707. While many critical accounts allude to her double conversion, it is usually accounted for in passing, with the implication that Trotter’s religious commitments are of merely biographical interest. Kelley, who has argued strenuously for Trotter’s importance, does not take up her religious commitments in any detail.

This article will attempt to show, however, that Trotter’s life contains several hints that her religious beliefs were of more than passing significance both to herself and to contemporaries. Notably, her second conversion resulted in the publication of A Discourse concerning “A Guide in Controversies,” in Two Letters (1707), which Bishop Gilbert Burnet praised for “the strength and clearness of the reasoning.” I hope to suggest, moreover, that both the structure and themes of Trotter’s early tragedies are influenced in key ways by religious concerns and questions. Agnes de Castro (1695), The Fatal Friendship (1698), and The Unhappy Penitent (1701) all confront the audience with cases of conscience that the protagonists must attempt both to understand and resolve. Both Protestant and Catholic traditions made use of such cases as tools for moral discernment. In The Unhappy Penitent, however, the representation of the authority of conscience is influenced, I will suggest, by Trotter’s exposure to Catholic moral teaching. Whereas more recent criticism of this play has noted its defense of female rationality and moral agency, I argue that the play’s tragic conflict derives from the tension between conscience understood as an individual moral capacity and conscience understood as an external rule. Questioning the authority of the former view of conscience, The Unhappy Penitent casts doubt on the adequacy of private moral judgment and suggests that such judgment stands in need of authoritative supplement.

Elsewhere in Trotter’s drama, a similar tension reoccurs between individuals and the forms of obligation that bind or constrain their desires. Repeatedly, her plays subordinate those desires to prior commitments that overrule subjective interests. Doubt about the authority of “interest” pervades Trotter’s moral philosophy, where she contests any assumption that “good” and “evil” are...

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