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Catherine Cockburn

Catharine Trotter Cockburn (16 August 1679 – 11 May 1749) was a novelist, dramatist, and philosopher.



Born to Scottish parents living in London,Trotter was raised Protestant but converted to Roman Catholicism at an early age. She finally returned to the Church of England in 1707, after what she terms much “free and impartial Enquiries.” After an illustrious career, her father, navy captain David Trotter, died of the plague in 1684, leaving his family in financial jeopardy.

Catharine was a precocious, physically attractive, and largely self-educated young woman, who had her first novel (The Adventures of a Young Lady, later retitled Olinda’s Adventures) published anonymously in 1693, when she was but 14 years old. Her first published play, Agnes de Castro (a verse dramatization of Aphra Behn's story of the same title), was staged two years later. In 1696, she was famously satirized alongside Delarivier Manley and Mary Pix in the anonymous play, The Female Wits. In it, Trotter was lampooned in the figure of “Calista, a lady who pretends to the learned languages and assumes to herself the name of critic.” Her second and arguably best-liked play The Fatal Friendship was staged in 1698. Trotter’s dramatic works generally met with modest public success and qualified praise from critics. Playwright William Congreve often encouraged and guided her in her dramatic writing, and he was not the only intellectual to remark on her precocity.

In 1702, at the remarkable age of 23 Trotter published her first major philosophical work, A Defence of Mr. Lock's [sic.] Essay of Human Understanding. John Locke was so pleased with this defence that he made gifts of money and books to his young apologist. Trotter went on to write two more works on moral philosophy, two major theological tracts, and a voluminous correspondence.

In 1708, she married Reverend Patrick Cockburn, and all but ceased to write until 1726, when she began another philosophical treatise. Her new family suffered financially and socially because Rev. Cockburn would not take the Oath of Abjuration upon the ascension of George I. The Reverend finally overcame his scruples in 1726, and he was appointed to St. Paul’s Chapel in Aberdeen.

Catharine’s work garnered the attention of eminent philosopher William Warburton, who prefaced her last philosophical work. She was also honoured with a request by the well-known biographer, William Birch, to aid him in compiling a collection of her works. She agreed to the project but died before the work could be printed. Birch posthumously published a two-volume collection of her works entitled The Works of Mrs. Catharine Cockburn, Theological, Moral, Dramatic, and Poetical in 1751. It is largely through this text that readers and history have come to know her.


Despite her one-time renown, Trotter’s reputation has steadily waned over the last three centuries and has only been rescued from near obscurity by the efforts of feminist critics, such as Anne Kelley, in the last two decades. Arguably, the predicament of her reputation is attributable to her having written a large amount of work very early in her life and less in her mature years. In other words, her career was extremely front-loaded, and the literati of her period (especially the men) tended to focus on her youth and beauty at the expense of her work. Some literary historians attribute her relative obscurity to a persistent emphasis being placed upon her philosophical work at the expense of her creative writing (especially by her biographer Thomas Birch, who included only one play in his two volume collection of her work and did not mention Olinda’s Adventures at all). Though skilful, her philosophical writings were sometimes dismissed as derivative, especially her defence of Locke’s Essay—a judgment that could hardly help her reputation.

Much of the scholarly interest in Trotter’s dramatic writing now centres on gender studies. Indeed, Trotter herself was cognisant of the limitations her gender placed upon her and often voiced her protest in writing. In the dedication to Fatal Friendship (1698), for example, she remarks that “when a Woman appears in the World under any distinguishing Character, she must expect to be the mark of ill Nature,” especially if she enters into “what the other Sex think their peculiar Prerogative.” Both Trotter’s literary works, in which women dominate the action, and her personal life provide rich subject matter for feminist criticism.

Play Productions

  • Agnes de Castro, London, Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, December 1695 or 27-31 1696.
  • Fatal Friendship, London, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, circa late May or early June 1698.
  • Love at a Loss, or, Most Votes Carry It (later rewritten as The Honourable Deceiver; or, All Right at the Last), London, Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, 23 November 1700.
  • The Unhappy Penitent, London, Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, 4 February 1701.
  • The Revolution of Sweden, London, Queen’s Theatre, 11 February 1706.

Books (short titles)

  • Agnes de Castro, A Tragedy. (London: Printed for H. Rhodes, R. Parker & S. Briscoe, 1696).
  • Fatal Friendship. A Tragedy. (London: Printed for Francis Saunders, 1698).
  • Love at a Loss, or, Most Votes Carry It. A Comedy. (London: Printed for William Turner, 1701).
  • The Unhappy Penitent, A Tragedy. (London: Printed for William Turner & John Nutt, 1701).
  • A Defence of Mr. Lock’s [sic.] Essay of Human Understanding. (London: Printed for Will. Turner & John Nutt, 1702).
  • The Revolution of Sweden. A Tragedy. (London: Printed for James Knapton & George Strahan, 1706).
  • A Discourse concerning a Guide in Controversies, in Two Letters. (London: Printed for A. & J. Churchill, 1707).
  • A Letter to Dr. Holdsworth, Occasioned by His Sermon Preached before the University of Oxford. (London: Printed for Benjamin Motte, 1726).
  • Remarks Upon the Principles and Reasonings of Dr. Rutherforth’s Essay on the Nature and Obligations of Virtue. (London: Printed for J. & P. Knapton, 1747).
  • The Works of Mrs. Catharine Cockburn, Theological, Moral, Dramatic, and Poetical. 2 vols. (London: Printed for J. & P. Knapton, 1751).

Other Publications

  • Olinda’s Adventures; or, The Amours of a Young Lady, in volume 1 of Letters of Love and Gallantry and Several Other Subjects. (London: Printed for Samuel Briscoe, 1693).
  • Epilogue, in Queen Catharine or, The Ruines[sic.] of Love, by Mary Pix. (London: Printed for William Turner & Richard Basset, 1698).
  • “Calliope: The Heroick [sic.] Muse: On the Death of John Dryden, Esq.; By Mrs. C. T.” in The Nine Muses. Or, Poems Written by Nine severall [sic.] Ladies Upon the Death of the late Famous John Dryden, Esq. (London: Printed for Richard Basset, 1700).
  • “Poetical Essays; May 1737: Verses, occasion’d by the Busts in the Queen’s Hermitage.” Gentleman’s Magazine, 7 (1737): 308.

Works in Print

  • Catharine Trotter Cockburn: Philosophical Writings. Ed. Patricia Sheridan. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2006. ISBN 1-55111-302-3. $24.95 CDN.
  • “Love at a Loss: or, Most Votes Carry It.” Ed. Roxanne M. Kent-Drury. The Broadview Anthology of Restoration & Early Eighteenth-Century Drama. Ed. J. Douglas Canfield. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2003. 857-902. ISBN 1-55111-581-6. $54.95 CDN.
  • Olinda’s Adventures, Or, the Amours of a Young Lady. New York: AMS Press Inc., 2004. ISBN 0-404-70138-8. $22.59 CDN.


  • Blaydes, Sophia B. “Catharine Trotter.” Dictionary of Literary Biography: Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Dramatists, Second Series. Ed. Paula R. Backsheider. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. 317-33.
  • Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women’s Literature. New York: Prentice Hall, 1992.
  • Kelley, Anne. Catharine Trotter: An Early Modern Writer in the Vanguard of Feminism. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, 2002.
  • Kelley, Anne. “Trotter, Catharine (1674?—1749).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. October 4, 2006.
  • Sheridan, Patricia. “Catharine Trotter Cockburn.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 2005. October 10, 2006.
  • Uzgalis, Bill. “Timeline.” University of Oregon. 1995. October 12, 2006.

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