Mary Astell's Life and Work

Mary Astell’s Life

 

The baptismal book of the Church of St. John’s, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, includes the following notice of Mary Astell’s birth: “Mary Astell 12. Nov. 1666, the daughter of Mr. Astell.” The “Mr. Astell” to whom the record refers is Peter Astell, a successful coal merchant; his wife, Mary Errington, was the daughter of George Errington, another successful Newcastle coal merchant. Both families also claimed status as members of the gentry, a class that, in the mid-seventeenth century, included not only those with land and titles but those who could claim a respectable family history, some degree of education, and a measure of economic success.

As a daughter born into such a comfortably situated, well-connected family, the young Mary Astell might have been expected to marry, raise children, and live out her life quietly, in equally comfortable obscurity. But the modest good fortune of her family did not last, Mary Astell never married, she raised no children, and rather than living and dying in obscurity, she came to be a very public figure in the city of London.

Not a great deal is known about Astell’s childhood. A younger brother, Peter, was born in 1668; a third child and second son, William, was born a few years later and lived only a week. As a girl, Mary Astell would have received conventional training in household chores and basic reading and writing skills. Although she received no formal schooling, she was tutored by her uncle, a Cambridge-educated curate who introduced the young Astell to the study of philosophy and theology, among other subjects less conventional for a young girl.

After Astell’s father, Peter Astell, died in 1678, the fortunes of the family quickly declined; what resources could be found went to providing for her brother’s education and legal training. According to Astell’s biographer, Ruth Perry, there were “no such prospects” for Mary Astell, who “was a burden to her family, and neither marriage nor independence seemed possible.” What happened next, however, seems no less possible. When she was in her early twenties, Astell left Newcastle and her mother’s home, travelled to London, and made a life there for herself.

The first evidence of Astell in the city is an undated letter addressed to the archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, and collected among his papers for 1688; in this letter, Astell presents herself as a “humble petitioner being brought to very great necessity through some very unfortunate circumstances.” “I am a gentlewoman,” she asserts, “not able to get a livelihood.” She is ashamed to beg, but absolute necessity forces her to write in the hope Sancroft will take pity on her “unhappy state.”

Sancroft seems to have helped her with money and with contacts, perhaps connecting her with Richard Wilkin, who would publish her first book, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, in 1694. In the years following her contact with Sancroft, she settled in Chelsea where, in September of 1693, she initiated a correspondence with John Norris, an Anglican priest, rector of Bemerton, and noted philosopher. Richard Wilkin would publish their correspondence, Letters Concerning the Love of God, in 1695.

In the next few years, Astell published, in rapid succession, a series of works on a variety of philosophical, theological, and political issues. But after 1709, she published nothing new. It may be, as Perry suggests, that Astell “recognized that the weight of history was against her”: “Her last two works had not sold well; she was being lampooned in the public papers as a peculiar old maid. She had probably overstayed her welcome in the world of letters.” But her attention and energy may, rather, have shifted focus, since Astell had also moved beyond advocacy into action, opening a charity school for girls in 1709. Housed in the Chelsea Royal Hospital, the school Astell founded would survive until 1862. And while Astell published no new titles after 1709, she continued to rethink and revise her earlier work, especially her two feminist texts, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies and Some Reflections upon Marriage

 

Astell’s school was established with the assistance of a number of women who would become her life-long friends and supporters, among them Lady Catherine Jones. Astell acquired her own house in Chelsea, on Paradise Row—she opens Some Reflections upon Marriage with a reference to the death of her neighbor, Hortense Mancini, and uses the duchess of Mazarin’s life and disastrous divorce as the starting point for her anatomy of marriage.

The last decades of Astell’s life were quiet. Aside from her work with the Chelsea school, she attended church every day. She made plans for a book on natural philosophy to be written for women by women. She owned a parrot. A cousin, another Newcastle coal merchant, like her father, visited on occasion. She wrote letters. She walked. In 1718, she became ill and spent several months recuperating in Sussex. As she grew older, she gave up her own home but remained in Chelsea, living with her friend, Lady Catherine Jones. She was well enough, early in 1730, to be able to make the walk from Chelsea to St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields to hear the sermons of a new vicar, Zachary Pearce. But at some point, she developed breast cancer and had a mastectomy. She survived the surgery but died two months later, on May 9, 1731, a few months short of her sixty-fifth birthday. She was buried in the churchyard of Chelsea Old Church on May 14.

 

No portrait of Mary Astell was ever painted. Many years after Astell’s death, Lady Louisa Stuart, whose grandmother, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, had known Astell well, disagreed with the editor of her grandmother’s letters, who had described Astell as “fair and elegant.” Lady Louisa painted the best portrait of “the austere maiden gentlewoman” that survives:  Astell was “the Madonella of the Tatler, a very pious, exemplary woman, and a profound scholar, but as far from fair and elegant as any old schoolmaster of her time: in outward form, indeed, rather ill-favored and forbidding, and of a humour to have repulsed the compliment roughly, had it been paid to her while she lived. For she regarded such common-place phrases as insults in disguise, impertinently offered by men through a secret persuasion that all women were fools.”

 

The earliest biographical sketch of Mary Astell’s life and work is by George Ballard, Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain Who Have Been Celebrated for Their Writings or Skill in the Learned Languages, Arts and Sciences (Oxford, 1752), 445-60.

It took more than 150 years for another biographical treatment: Florence M. Smith, Mary Astell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1916).

The more complete biography is Ruth Perry’s now-classic Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986). See also Perry, “Astell, Mary,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [online], 2004-.

 

Mary Astell’s Work

 

Although many details of Mary Astell’s daily life remain unknown, her values and beliefs are clearly known, outlined, argued, and defended in her written work. In addition to A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, her Letters Concerning the Love of God, and Some Reflections upon Marriage, three political pamphlets published in 1704 reflect her conservative Tory views: Moderation Truly Stated, A Fair Way with the Dissenters and their Patrons, and An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom. In matters of religion, she was a staunchly conservative Anglican, publishing what Ruth Perry has called her “religious credo,” The Christian Religion, as Profess’d by a Daughter of the Church of England, in 1705. In the last of her polemics, Bart’lemy Fair: Or, an Inquiry after Wit, published in 1709, she once more defended authority and established order and exposed the dangers of religious dissent and of mockery disguised as “liberty” and “wit.”

Listed below are the complete works: 

 
  • A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest. Printed for Richard Wilkin, 1694.
     

  • Letters Concerning the Love of God between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris. . . . Printed for Samuel Manship and Richard Wilkin, 1695.
     

  • A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest. Second edition, corrected. Printed for Richard Wilkin, 1695.
     

  • A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest. Third edition, corrected. Printed for Richard Wilkin, 1696.
     

  • A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II: Wherein a Method Is Offered for the Improvement of Their Minds. Printed for Richard Wilkin, 1697.
     

  • Some Reflections upon Marriage, Occasioned by the Duke and Duchess of Mazarin’s Case, Which Is Also Considered. Printed for John Nutt, 1700.
     

  • A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest. In Two Parts. Printed for Richard Wilkin, 1701.
     

  • Some Reflections upon Marriage. Second edition. Printed for Richard Wilkin, 1703.
     

  • Moderation Truly Stated: Or, a Review of a Late Pamphlet Entitled Moderation. . . . Printed for Richard Wilkin, 1704.
     

  • A Fair Way with Dissenters and Their Patrons. . . . Printed for Richard Wilkin, 1704.
     

  • An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom. . . . Printed for Richard Wilkin, 1704.
     

  • Letters Concerning the Love of God between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris. . . . Second edition, “Corrected by the authors with some few things added.” Printed for Samuel Manship and Richard Wilkin, 1705.
     

  • The Christian Religion, as Profess’d by a Daughter of the Church of England. Printed for Richard Wilkin, 1705.
     

  • Some Reflections upon Marriage. Third edition, “To which is added a preface, in answer to some objections.” Printed for Richard Wilkin, 1706.
     

  • Bart’lemy Fair: Or, an Inquiry after Wit. . . . Printed for Richard Wilkin, 1709.
     

  • The Christian Religion. Second edition. Printed for Richard Wilkin, 1717.
     

  • Bart’lemy Fair: Or, an Inquiry after Wit. . . . Second edition, “wherein the trifling arguing and impious raillery of the late earl of Shaftesbury . . . are fully answered.” Printed for John Bateman, 1722.
     

  • Some Reflections upon Marriage. Fourth edition, “With Additions.” Printed for William Parker, 1730.
     

  • Some Reflections upon Marriage. Fifth edition, “With additions.” Printed in Dublin by and for S. Hyde and E. Dobson, and for R. Gunne and R. Owen, 1730.
     

  • Letters Concerning the Love of God. Third edition. Printed for Edmund Parker, 1730.
     

  • The Christian Religion . . . with a Few Cursory Remarks. . . . Third edition. Printed for William Parker, 1730.
     

© 2020 by Sharon L. Jansen, All Rights Reserved

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