Forgotten Woman Writer: Margaret Catchpole Research Paper Examples

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Women, Life, Literature, Family, Gender, England, Religion, History

Pages: 7

Words: 1925

Published: 2021/02/11


In the corpus of fictional literature penned by female writers in the past few centuries, women have been represented and discursively framed in a variety of fashions. Such a diverse array of literature pieces have enabled scholars and students alike to recognize changing attitudes to women and the corresponding development of new techniques of literary presentation. Unfortunately, many female writers have been forgotten or elided from the grand narrative due to the entrenched sexism and structural prejudices that have pervaded the American intelligentsia since the inception of the nation. Feminist Janet Wolff opined that "women's writing and women's art, like women's knowledge, begins to articulate the silenced voice of women, but it is obliged to do so in the context of dominant, alien, but ultimately enabling culture" (Wolff, as cited in McCaughan, 44). Margaret Catchpole achieved notoriety as a so-called “fallen woman” whose personal story captivated the public imagination during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Born in Suffolk in 1762 to a working-class family and by an unmarried mother, Catchpole—a British chronicle, criminal and adventuress—was described by observers as a tall, intelligent, and dark-skinned woman who embodied the antithesis of the ideal woman during the epoch in which she lived (Brown et al.).. She achieved fame and notoriety through the various criminal acts she committed, which included stealing, among other serious crimes. Catchpole transgressed her gender by chafing against male hegemony and the patriarchal structures that ultimately earned her two death sentences, both of which were commuted and resulted in her exile to Australia. Although there is a paucity of sources on the lives of working-class women, the survival of some of Catchpole’s letters is both rare and valuable (Hassam). In the face of adversity, Catchpole, despite the gender mores of the epoch that rendered women inferior and subservient, exercised agency in the traditionally male public sphere not only because she was economically independent but also through her letter writing, which gave voice to working-class women in the master narrative whom otherwise would have been elided.


Catchpole’s letters elucidated life for members of the working class in a way that has been missing from the master narrative. Although she was educated later than most in the homes she worked as a servant in, her letters, written in broken English. Beyond recording the mundane, Catchpole also infused wit and humor into her letters in order to limn a rich and vivid picture of colonial life. Life as a female convict, catchpole related, was quite difficult. She describes her surroundings as “the wickedes [sic] place I ever was in all my life” (Catchpole). Such intimations relate the hardships female convicts faced during an epoch that confined women to the private sphere. During her thirties, Catchpole labored for different well-to-do families in Suffolk and learned how to read and write. She penned a series of letters, which, combined with newspaper accounts and renderings of her as a conspicuous public figure, provide a trenchant window into the life of a female author who has been erased from the master narrative. Prior to leaving home in search of work, Catchpole fell in love with a local man named William Laud who was fully ensconced in the criminal underground smuggling world, which was common in Suffolk during the eighteenth century. Catchpole’s personal life became intertwined with that of her lover. As such, she too descended into the criminal underworld. In the spring of 1797, Catchpole stole a horse from the stables of the Cobbold family whom in service of. She did so in order to journey to London where she believed her lover resided. Reports in a local periodical entitled Ipswich Journey recounted how a female horse-stealer rode on horseback for over seventy miles in just ten hours. For a woman living in the eighteenth century, catchpole’s feat was quite extraordinary. She evaded detection by disguising herself as a man. Unfortunately, she appeared awkward while riding the horse, which cultivated suspicions in people whom she rode the horse past and ultimately led to her arrest once she arrived in London. Shortly thereafter, Catchpole received a death sentence, although it was almost immediately commuted to a seven year prison sentence because members of the Cobbold family delivered a searing appeal on her behalf. Despite Catchpole’s fortune of evading death, she soon broke the law again in 1800 in a spectacular and highly public manner. She had been consigned to Ipswich Gaol, which was a prison located in Ipswich, in the aftermath of her trial.
However, Catchpole escaped from prison in order to reunite with her lover and move with him to Holland. She did so by disguising herself as a sailor, and, despite her diminutive stature, was able to scale a wall with spikes at the top that was twenty two feet by using a linen line and a gardening frame. She was quickly apprehended and sentenced to death for a second time, but again got her prison sentence commuted to transportation for the duration of her natural life. Along with two of her fellow female convicts, Catchpole moved to Australia and established a good life there in which she received a pardon for her crimes, worked hard, and became a farmer and midwife until she died in 1819. Catchpole’s slew of public exploits garnered her fame and notoriety in Suffolk. Moreover, the epistles she sent to her family in England help scholars understand the lived experiences, beliefs, and attitudes of female convicts during the formative years of the American republic. As such, in the face of adversity, it is unequivocal that Catchpole exercised her agency as woman in the public sphere in a variety of ways, which enabled her to carve out her own fate and endure involuntary exile despite the fact that women lacked any economic or political agency during the eighteenth century. Writing became the primary tool that Catchpole used to fashion her own identity and legacy. Catchpole eschewed prevailing gender strictures that muted women’s voices in the master narrative. She transgressed the limitations of her gender through criminality and writing, which elucidates how dexterous, fluent, and independent Catchpole was.


During the eighteen and nineteenth century, the so-called Cult of true womanhood dictated the era’s moral canon and represented certain values related to ideal womanhood. This gender matrix is clear in literature penned by educated middle-class authors in order to naturalize unequal gender relations. a dichotomous understanding of gender informed by the ideology of separate spheres shaped gender roles and expectations. The Victorian period in England emerged as one of the most important time periods in the history of Britain. Although Britain developed into one of the most powerful nations beginning in the eighteenth century, a highly patriarchal society, famous for its oppressive social restrictions and squalid urban conditions, traditional views of unequal gender relations persisted. Such a bifurcated understanding and perception of gender within the home would later be challenged. An underlying assumption regarding the proper and/or natural roles for males and females has retained trans-historical currency for many societies and cultures, especially in the west. However, the division of labor according to gender—in which men crafted their own reputation and living in the world while women were expected to tend to the hearth and raise the children within the private, domestic sphere—remains a remnant of an antiquated and outdated past rather comprising a “rational basis” for western society (Tosh 1).
According to Barbara Welter, the scholar who coined the phrase “cult of true womanhood” during the nineteenth century in the United States, this cult was comprised of four fundamental ideals: purity, piety, domesticity, and submissiveness. Evidence used to reconstruct the life and cogitations of Catchpole unequivocally depict her as the antithesis of the ideal woman in western society. Purity called for women the adhere to the specter of premarital sex, as those who exhibit sexually promiscuous behavior are pushed to the periphery of civilized society because of the possibility of childbirth out of wedlock. Indeed, sexual purity was prized because purity was viewed as the natural state for women. Indeed, such expectations carried with them both procreative duties and marriage as signifiers of ideal femininity. As such, a cult of virginity emerged as a central component of the moral canon in place during Catchpole’s life.
Piety referred to the centrality of religious devotion to what it meant to be a proper middle-class woman that also played a role in influencing female purity. Piety, it was believed, purportedly bred morality. Ideal women within middle-class society were supposed to be moralizing influences as their obligation and duty. Thus, women were perceived as moral beacons who set the moral standards that men sought to live up to. As such, a gendering of religious practices was directly related to the pious element of womanhood. Within traditional discourses, men assumed the role of the bread winner, as they confronted the vagaries, roughness, and troubles in a world that is morally bereft. As a result, men needed to be morally regenerated in the privacy of their own homes every night. The home and domestic sphere for men represented the haven necessary for men who ensconced themselves in a heartless world on a quotidian basis.
Domesticity represents the third strand of the cult of true womanhood. Women were expected to be a wife and regenerative force who also possessed the procreative duty to become competent mothers. Women were expected to run their household by managing the house staff, which was comprised of her children’s nannies, governances, and housekeepers. This separate spheres ideology fortified distinct and rigid distinctions between the public male sphere and private domestic sphere dominated by women. These two spheres could never converge, and if the boundaries were transgressed or violated in any way resulted in the besmirching of not only their own reputation but also the reputation of their family and husband. Finally, submissiveness was an integral component of the Cult of True Womanhood. Coverture was a common legal practice in which the identity of a wife was subsumed by that of her husband, thereby disinheriting the woman. Such a hierarchical legal positioning between husbands and wives represents the crux of traditional gender mores that Catchpole unequivocally and deliberately ignored and critiqued.


Novels written about historical figures has grown increasingly popular in the modern era. Although Catchpole no doubt would be a fascinating and provocative subject for biographers, it is also quite evident that she is more apt as the protagonist in a novel. A dearth of historical documentary evidence leaves a vacuum open for authors to creatively imagine and provide conjecture in order to articulate a coherent and nuanced narrative. Catchpole’s surviving letters to her family in Suffolk while in exile are the primary sources left for scholars to piece together. Unfortunately, as the daughter of a ploughman, very little has been written about her early life in Suffolk. William Cobbold and Carol Birch are among several writers who have penned contemporary accounts of Catchpole in a fictionalized manner.
Unapologetically blending fact with fiction, Reverend Richard Cobbold, the son of Catchpole’s former employer, proffered the first biography of Catchpole’s life based on her epistles. Throughout the text, Cobbold underscores the reliability of his narrative, as he described it as a “romantic but perfectly true narrative” (Cobbold 1). Although the bulk of Cobbold’s biography lined up with the narrative formed in her letters, there are nonetheless many inconsistencies and distortions made by the author in order to appeal to readers. Cobbold idealizes and distorts certain facts about Catchpole, including her age and marital status in order to limn his subject in a favorable light. Cobbold states in his work that Catchpole carried one of her former male companions from Suffolk and became a mother of three loving children. Unfortunately, her letters clearly indicate that she had no desire to get married, which was greatly frowned upon during the epoch in which she lived. As such, it is unequivocal that Cobbold’s representation of Catchpole deviates from truth so that the author could frame her through a favorable prism. Catchpole’s historical narrative was penned, according to Cobbold, as a didactic work regarding the significance of religion as a cautionary tale about the fate of women who transgress gender norms. Cobbold’s biography thus appears to be a moral fable in which the protagonist typifies the “fallen woman,” which was a common trope in the literary canon produced during the Victorian era. The fallen woman—often associated with a strumpet—devolves at the hands of “evil men.” However, religion, compassion, and motherhood—hallmark traits of the ideal woman in Victorian discourses—eventually redeem fallen women.
Time and again Cobbold underscores the virtuous nature of Catchpole who conformed to salient Victorian gender strictures that portrayed women as modest, docile, and motherly. Such a portrayal forces the reader to question the accuracy of such a representation due to cultural and epochal biases. Indeed, Catchpole’s bravery and affinity for adventure undermine Cobbold’s depiction of her as a victim of a society defined by male hegemony and patriarchal oppression. As a result, literary renderings of Catchpole strip her of her agency, ingenuity, and resourcefulness that she time and again evinced. Despite Cobbold’s futile efforts to transpose Victorian ideals regarding ideal womanhood onto Catchpole as a woman who embodied their antithesis, it was her unfeminine behavior and escapades that undergirded her notoriety in her hometown of Suffolk. Her aberrant behavior has cemented her legacy into the present day. Cinematic representations of Margaret Catchpole also proliferated and depicted the adventuress in a certain light.


Despite her notoriety as a female criminal of eschewed epochal gender norms, Margaret Catchpole nonetheless recorded her own accounts of certain historical events that would have otherwise been lost and left out of the grand narrative. Indeed, her letters written at the outset of the nineteenth century remain the only eyewitness accounts of calamities such as the Hawkesbury River flood. Moreover, she meticulously vividly described the countryside, wild flora and fauna, as well as ethnographies on the aboriginals. Moreover, she shed light on the savage and immoral dimensions she witnessed in the denizens of Australia as a colony. As such, her letters and chronicles were critical for drawing a nuanced narrative about the early history of Australia. Her life fascinated and horrified observers due to her complete disregard for salient gender ideals, which is reified in the proliferation and literary and cinematic representation of her life. Catchpole died in New South Wales on May 13, 1819 from influenza. Ultimately, writers during the nineteenth century appropriated Catchpole’s writings and her life story to fit certain narratives. She embraced her life in Richmond of New South Wales where she worked as a midwife and as a farmer. She waxed poetic about her new life in a place full of free people whole valued the contributions of women in a different manner than men in British society at large did. Catchpole refused to get married despite the litany of suitors who approached her. Catchpole’s biography underscores her brave and unconventional disposition as a woman living in a society highly steeped and ensconced in patriarchy.

Works Cited

Birch, Carol. Scapegallows. London: Virago, 2007. Print.
Brown, Susan, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, eds. MARGARET CATCHPOLE entry: Overview screen within Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Online, 2006. <>. 31 March 2015.
Brown, Susan, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, eds. Results of Tag Search query on Catchpole, Margaret within tag Name within Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Online, 2006. <>. 31 March 2015.
Cobbold, Richard. The History of Margaret Catchpole a Suffolk Girl. Auckland: Floating, 2012. Print.
Ellen, Mary. "Writing Anglo-Australian History: Writing the Female Convict." Women's Writing. 5.2 (1998): 253-64.   Print.
Longford, Raymond. The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole. DVD. 1911.
McCaughan, E.J. "Navigating the Labyrinth of Silence: Feminist Artists in Mexico." Social Justice 34.1 (2007): 44-62. Nb
Tosh, John A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-class Home in Victorian England. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1999. Print.

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