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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Suffolk

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Myths and Legends
Margaret Catchpole: a “fallen woman”?

Margaret's life inspired many dramatisations
© Courtesy of Suffolk Record Office
Throughout the book, Cobbold emphasises Margaret’s essentially good and virtuous nature, comparing her favourably to her monstrous aunt, a “weak” and unfeeling woman, almost unfit to be a mother. He portrays her as a “victim” of men, as easy “prey”, and as led astray by her “blind passion” for Laud – her “one great error”. Cobbold makes Margaret conform to his Victorian ideas about women as docile, modest, mother-figures, changing facts when necessary, for example he falsely says she worked in a female orphanage in Australia.

A “fallen woman”?

But knowing what we do about Margaret’s courageous and adventurous behaviour, how accurate can this representation of her as a “victim” of men really be? Portraying her in this way is unfair, depriving her of the resourcefulness and ingenuity which she obviously possessed in abundance.

Margaret escaping
Margaret scaled a 22ft wall to escape Ipswich Gaol!
© Courtesy of Suffolk Record Office, ref HA213:1287143
And the “repackaging” of Margaret isn’t all that convincing anyway. Cobbold tried to recast her as the “fallen woman”, but it is the spirited bits of her story – the horse-stealing and gaol-breaking, the riding bareback and disguising herself as a man – that stand out in the book. Cobbold couldn’t totally keep these aspects of her character down, just like her contemporaries couldn’t in real life.

Cobbold tries to write his Victorian ideas about femininity back into 1800, but Margaret was not docile, and it was her “unfeminine” escapades that made her so notorious in Suffolk. Indeed, it is these aspects of the story that still dominate her legend today. Cobbold was spot on when he said “this extraordinary escapade is only worthy of such an extraordinary character as Margaret Catchpole”.

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Victorian ideals of womanhood
Penal colonies
Reverend Richard Cobbold
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