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date: 06 May 2021

Astell, Maryfree

(1666–1731)
  • Ruth Perry

Astell, Mary (1666–1731), philosopher and promoter of women's education, was born in Newcastle upon Tyne on 12 November 1666, the first of two surviving children of Peter Astell (1638–1678), coal merchant, and his wife, Mary, daughter of George Errington, also a coal merchant in Newcastle. The Erringtons were a wealthy old Catholic Northumberland family. The Astells had been barristers and coal merchants; Mary Astell's grandfather, father, and uncle Isaac all were members of the coal Hostmen, a powerful guild in Newcastle that controlled the weighing, sorting, transfer, and shipping of coal at a time when the scarcity of timber in Europe created an international market for fossil fuel. Her brother, Peter (b. 1668), became a lawyer, married in 1700, and had two sons; he and his wife and children were all dead by 1712.

Education

Mary Astell grew up in a prosperous, well-connected family. Her paternal uncle Ralph Astell, curate of St Nicholas's, Newcastle upon Tyne, was an intellectual and a man of letters. Unmarried and without any children of his own, he educated his young niece in the philosophy that he had studied at Cambridge—Platonists like Henry More and John Smith—and in theological doctrine. She apparently inherited his library, for a number of his books, annotated in her hand, passed into the hands of her executor, Elizabeth Hutcheson, when Astell died. In addition to their large, well-furnished house Astell's father was part owner of four merchant vessels at the time of his death in 1678. The fortunes of the family declined after that, and it was more than a decade before Astell's mother could pay back the £21 that she had borrowed from the Hostmen to pay for her husband's funeral expenses.

London

It is not known when exactly Astell came to London but it was probably in 1687–8, at the time of the revolution, which brought riots to her native Newcastle, where her family, who had been staunch royalists in the civil war, now sympathized with James II and opposed William and Mary. She may have aimed to support herself as a writer, but without family in London she had difficulty making a living. Archbishop William Sancroft came to her aid with financial support 'when even my Kinsfolk had failed, and my familiar Friends had forgotten me' (Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell, 68), and in gratitude she presented him in 1689 with a long manuscript of poems on subjects such as virtue, affliction, ambition, solitude, death, judgement, and the afterlife. These poems, written between 1683 and 1688, with their biblical references, fervent images of the divine, and disdain for worldly concerns, also express her loneliness and physical privation:

Long have I liv'd on hope, but willA Hope that's always baulk'd continue still?Is't not a sign the flood dos still remain,When my poor Dove comes empty home again?

ibid., The Complaint, ll. 33–6, 444

Women's intellectual equality

Astell settled in Chelsea, a salubrious suburb inhabited by the wealthy and by a number of fashionable girls' boarding-schools. She never taught in any of these schools but women's education was one of her lifelong concerns. She apparently continued the line of study marked out by her uncle Ralph Astell, for on 21 September 1693 she wrote a letter to John Norris of Bemerton, the last of the Cambridge Platonists, about an inconsistency that she had found in the third volume of his Discourses. 'Sir', she wrote:

though some morose Gentleman wou'd perhaps remit me to the Distaff or the Kitchin … yet expecting better things from the more Equitable and ingenious Mr. Norris, who is not so narrow-Soul'd as to confine Learning to his own Sex, or to envy it in ours, I presume to beg his Attention a little to the Impertinencies of a Woman's Pen.

Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell, 355

Norris had argued that one ought to love God as the efficient cause of one's pleasure. Astell countered that since God was the efficient cause of all sensation one was forced to the conclusion that pain, given his responsibility for it, may in fact do one good. Her opening letter has all the earmarks of her literary self: a relish for philosophical argument; self-assured, lively, conversational prose; familiarity with contemporary discourse about the love of God and the place of suffering in human life. For ten months she and Norris corresponded about the philosophical contradictions of living a spiritual life: whether one owed love to God or to his creatures, how to respond to life's pain and misfortune, and whether God or the material world was the efficient cause of all sensation. Delighted with his interlocutor, Norris asked to publish their correspondence. While it was in negotiation Astell published her first book, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694), which together with the correspondence with Norris, under the title Letters Concerning the Love of God (1695), established her reputation as an intellectual and a writer.

Although the volume of letters with Norris was generally considered by Astell's contemporaries to be her most sublime work, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies has proved to be her most lasting contribution. An instant success, it was widely discussed in her day and went through four new editions by 1701. Signed only by 'a lover of her sex' it was a text that began to construct the attitude that later historians would call feminist. In it Astell argued that by not educating women—by not teaching them the works of philosophers and religious thinkers who could lead them to understand the higher purposes of human life—women were confined to trivial ornamental status and petty concerns. 'Women', she wrote, 'are from their very Infancy debar'd those Advantages, with the want of which they are afterwards reproached' (M. Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, 1694, 25–6). They are 'nursed up in those Vices which will hereafter be upbraided to them. So partial are Men as to expect Brick where they afford no Straw' (ibid., 26). She appealed to women to recognize their 'real Interest' and to improve their intellectual capacities and understanding rather than just spend their time tinkering with external appearance. 'How can you be content', she asked, 'to be in the World like Tulips in a Garden, to make a fine shew and be good for nothing' (ibid., 11). She urged them to be scholars and poets and to strive for excellence, arguing that the life of the mind was 'a Matter infinitely more worthy your Debates, than what Colours are most agreeable, or what's the Dress becomes you best' (ibid., 6). She encouraged women to aspire to higher things than:

to attract the Eyes of Men. We value them too much, and ourselves too little, if we place any part of our desert in their Opinion; and don't think our selves capable of Nobler Things than the pitiful Conquest of some worthless heart.

ibid., 14–15

Astell's proposed remedy was to create an intellectual retreat—an all-women's community, a seminary, a secular convent—funded by pooling many moderate dowries, where women could spend their time in study and contemplation, reading 'judicious authors', enacting good works, and enjoying one another's friendship and conversation. Moreover these proposed communities of religious retirement might also solve the problem of where a woman should live (since the English Reformation had closed the convents) if she were an adult but did not choose to marry. Astell thought of these communities as an alternative to marriage—or at least a resting place for women between their parental homes and marriage. They were to be havens for 'hunted heiresses' importuned for their fortunes by adventurers and impoverished gentlemen, as well as places where women could cultivate their minds.

Astell's proposal was widely noted by her contemporaries and by subsequent writers. Defoe copied her idea into his Essay on Projects (1697), claiming that he had thought of an academy for women 'long before the Book call'd advice to the Ladies, was made Publick' (Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell, 129). Richard Steele mocked her in several columns of The Tatler in 1709, calling her the leader of 'an order of Platonick Ladies' determined to remain unmarried virgins and 'resolv'd to join their Fortunes and erect a Nunnery' (The Tatler, 23 June 1709). Samuel Richardson's eponymous hero Sir Charles Grandison refers approvingly to this scheme for a 'Protestant nunnery' in the second volume of that novel (1753). There is also some evidence that Clarissa's final preparations for death in Richardson's 1748 novel—bringing her coffin into her bedroom, praying, and refusing all food—are modelled on Mary Astell's last days. In the nineteenth century Robert Southey proposed an educational establishment for women supported by the dowries and estates of the wealthy. Tennyson's The Princess (1847) is about a noblewoman who establishes a women's university, a theme adapted by Gilbert and Sullivan in Princess Ida. Even in the twentieth century Astell's proposal reverberated in continuing debates about women's education.

Vivid, direct, and engaging, Astell's quotable style made an impression on her eighteenth-century readers. A Serious Proposal was particularly admired by a set of single, aristocratic, philanthropically-minded women of the day, among them Lady Catherine Jones, Lady Elizabeth Hastings and her half-sisters, and Anne, countess of Coventry. These women took up Astell and became her patrons and supporters. Astell's extraordinary rhetorical gifts and capacity for philosophical reasoning conferred on her a status in London society that she had not been born to, raising her to a kind of social equivalence with these aristocratic women. Lady Catherine Jones, a Chelsea neighbour, became an especially close friend; Astell dedicated her Letters Concerning the Love of God (1695) to her and in her final years lived in her house in Jew's Row.

It is said that the prospective queen, Princess Anne of Denmark, was so impressed by the proposal that she was prepared to donate £10,000 to establish Astell's educational retreat. That she allowed Astell to dedicate the sequel, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II (1697), to her indicates some measure of her regard for the author, but Anne was talked out of her utopian enthusiasm for Astell's plan by Bishop Gilbert Burnet, who is reputed to have disapproved of the papist flavour of this 'protestant monastery'. Astell replied to his objection in this work, and her reply suggests what Burnet's objections had been. 'They must either be very Ignorant or very Malicious who pretend that we wou'd imitate Foreign Monasteries … a little attention to what they read might have convinc'd them that our Institution is rather Academical than Monastic' (pp. 285–6).

Knowledge, not faith, was the subject of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II. It distils a method of philosophical thought, derived from the Jansenists of the Port Royal school, as a kind of do-it-yourself handbook to help women learn to think seriously about their moral and intellectual purposes. In it Astell synthesizes the contemporary philosophical debate about the extent to which knowledge comes directly from God or is merely gathered by the senses—an issue that she began debating in her letters with Norris. She took issue with Locke's materialism in this particular because she felt that if the only ideas available to people came through the senses then there would be no way to advance or to improve the status quo. She was convinced that the highest purpose of human thought was the contemplation of pure ideas, which by virtue of their abstract nature had the power to draw the mind away from the senses, moderate the passions, and focus the distractable mortal mind on an immaterial ‘good’. Because she believed that reason was necessary to lead one to a knowledge of God she intended this book to teach women to think their way through to an understanding of the true and good in human life. Some of her arguments from this work were copied verbatim by George Berkeley, later bishop of Cloyne, into his compilation called The Ladies Library (1714).

Returning to an expressly feminist subject in her next work, Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700), Astell argued that since the marriage contract required a woman's absolute obedience to her husband no woman ought to marry except where her husband's moral superiority warranted that kind of obedience. As a tory she believed in the necessity of a citizen's absolute obedience to a monarch and she disagreed with those who, following Locke, argued that obedience in a state was contractual and negotiable. She was sympathetic to the nonjuring clergy like Henry Dodwell, who, having sworn allegiance to James II, refused to renege on that pledge and swear anew to William and Mary. She asserted that since one was born into a state one owed obedience to its sovereign, but in the case of marriage one had a choice about undertaking such obligations on a voluntary basis. No woman had to agree to supererogatory vows of obedience. She advised women to think long and hard before entering voluntarily into the tyrannical relationship of marriage.

Political and religious writings

Astell wrote four more political works as well as a major exposition of her religious credo, The Christian Religion, as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England (1705). All her political texts in one way or another explore the dangers of allowing dissent and subversion in the state, and religious pluralism in parliament. She wrote Moderation Truly Stated (1704) and A Fair Way with the Dissenters and their Patrons (1704) as interventions in the current debates in parliament about occasional conformity, the practice whereby dissenters could hold public office if they occasionally took communion in the Church of England. Her arguments against the Occasional Conformity Bill were very much admired by such high-churchmen as George Hickes and Francis Atterbury. Defoe, a dissenter, wrote several pamphlets on the opposite side of the question and satirized Astell's position.

Astell's third pamphlet of 1704, An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom, began by deploring the execution of Charles I and went on to compare the seditious tactics of the whigs and dissenters of 1688—and by implication the whigs and dissenters who favoured occasional conformity—to the positions of the rebels of 1641. She then composed The Christian Religion, as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England (1705), which she considered her magnum opus, a long, scholarly treatise in numbered propositions, explaining the philosophical and theological grounds for natural and revealed religion. In 1709 she wrote Bart'lemy Fair, or, An Enquiry after Wit, her last polemical work, which she published under the pseudonym Mr Wotton and in which she opposed Shaftesbury's claim that ridicule could separate sound religious beliefs from absurd ones. She argued that religious truth was not guaranteed by the free exercise of wit in the market place of ideas and maintained that the bedrock of faith (or ethics) had to be accepted unconditionally rather than debated according to rules of logic.

Philosophical principles

Mainly known today as an early feminist and high tory polemicist, Astell was first and foremost a philosopher. Her feminist texts were written to defend women's right to education and to the life of the mind. She debated with her contemporaries John Norris, John Locke, Bishop George Berkeley, and Shaftesbury on all the major philosophical questions of the day: the role of God in the production of pain and pleasure; the place of faith, of reason or propositional logic, and of sensory experience in determining what we know; whether or not human beings are born with innate ideas or are tabulae rasae upon which experience writes its predictable lessons; whether or not ideas are both clear and distinct; the meaning of a mind–body dualism, and whether or not matter can think.

Astell objected to the doctrine of the human mind as a tabula rasa, as she did to the notion of an abstract social contract among individuals, because she felt that humans were born into pre-existing social worlds of families, villages, countries, and cultures. She thought it absurd to imagine that children came into the world abstractly:

I had hitherto thought that … a State of Nature was a meer figment of Hobb's Brain … till you [Locke] were pleas'd to inform me ‘of that Equality wherin the Race of Men were plac'd in the Free State of Nature’ … How I lament my stars that it was not my good fortune to Live in those Happy Days when Men sprung up like so many Mushrooms or Terrae Filii, without Father or Mother or any sort of dependency.

M. Astell, Moderation Truly Stated, 1704, xxxv

Furthermore she recognized that such a formulation erased women's reproductive agency for the sake of a theory that proclaimed all men equal but considered women irrelevant.

Astell viewed faith, knowledge, and opinion not so much as different ways of knowing as knowledge with different degrees of evidence. For example she thought that it was possible to have clear, certain, and indubitable ideas of one's own mind and of God but that it was impossible to know their nature distinctly because in the first case the mind is too complex to know itself and in the second because God is infinite.

Locke had objected to conceiving of religion as the contemplation of abstract ideas because he thought religion in that form was beyond the grasp of 'vulgar capacities'. In The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) he had written:

you may as soon hope to have all Day Labourers and Tradesmen, the Spinsters and Dairy Maids perfect Mathematicians, as to have them perfect in Ethics this way. Hearing plain Commands, is the sure and only course to bring them to Obedience and Practice.

p. 279

Astell was acutely aware that in this statement Locke had dismissed women along with the lower classes as incapable of following the reasoning that set up God as the fountainhead of good, the source of that absolute idea. She denied that such concepts were mysterious or inaccessible. They were only:

plain Propositions and short Reasonings about things familiar to our Minds, as need not amaze any part of Mankind, no not the Day Labourer and Tradesmen, the Spinsters and Dairy Maids, who may very easily apprehend what a Woman cou'd write.

M. Astell, The Christian Religion, as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church, 1705, 40–43

As usual she disclaimed any special abilities but used herself as the example that proved the capacities of all women. 'All the difference if there be any', she wrote, between herself and any other woman, arose 'only from her Application, her Disinterested and Unprejudiced Love to Truth, and unwearied pursuit of it, notwithstanding all Discouragements, which is in every Woman's Power as well as in hers' (ibid., 402–3).

Astell was disturbed that Locke did not argue for an immaterial soul but stipulated instead that matter thinks, that information comes through the senses and is recombined on the blank slate of the mind, and that the super-addition of thought to matter is trivial for an all-powerful God. She asserted that even making such an argument was tantamount to conceding the separation of mind and body. Locke's arguments amounted to nothing more, she wrote, than:

that God can do what we find He has done, (viz.) make another Substance besides Body, whose Essential Property, if not its very Essence shall be Thought, and can Unite this Thinking Substance to Body, which is what we call the Union between Soul and Body.

M. Astell, The Christian Religion, 261

The separation of mind and body was important to Astell because she thought it proved that all human beings, whatever their bodies and sensory capacities, had the same ability to reason their way to the absolute good.

Death and legacy

Astell, who never married, was often plagued with poor health and spent several months living in Burwash, Sussex, to recuperate from a long illness in 1718–19. In her final years she developed breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy under the knife of a surgeon named Dr Johnson. Two months later, on 9 May 1731, she died in Chelsea, where she was buried in the churchyard on 14 May.

A true figure of the Enlightenment, Astell was interested in science and practical education as well as philosophy and politics. She studied astronomy with Flamsteed at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich between September 1697 and February 1698. Her interest in mathematical concepts is evident from the mathematical metaphors that she uses in her writing. Always serious about women's education, she started a charity school for the daughters of pensioners in the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, for which she found a suitable site, raised funds, and planned the curriculum. The doors of this school opened in 1709 and it served veterans' daughters into the next century.

Astell was an important model and inspiration to other eighteenth-century women writers and intellectuals such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Lady Mary Chudleigh, Elizabeth Elstob, Elizabeth Thomas, Sarah Chapone, and the bluestockings of the following generation. She tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to convince Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to publish her so-called 'Turkish letters', the meditations and observations that she wrote during the years when her husband was ambassador to the court of Turkey; Astell wrote a preface to them in 1724, urging Lady Mary to publish them at the time. Astell's independent spirit and unequivocal claim to an intellectual voice certainly inspired Lady Mary Chudleigh's poems and Elizabeth Elstob's determination to be an Anglo-Saxon scholar and then an educator of women. Her books were read and admired by Sarah Chapone, a link to the bluestockings of the next generation and a good friend to Samuel Richardson. As one of the earliest English authors in the modern age of printing and mass dissemination to write what would now be called feminist analysis her ultimate influence on the history of the English-speaking women's movement is incalculable.

Sources

  • Bodl. Oxf., MSS Ballard
  • Bodl. Oxf., MSS Rawl.
  • parish register, Newcastle upon Tyne, St John, 1666 [baptism]
  • J. Flamsteed, ‘List of pupils’, CUL, Royal Greenwich Observatory papers, RGO 1/15, fols. 165v–166v
  • J. Kinnaird, ‘Mary Astell and the conservative contribution to English feminism’, Journal of British Studies, 19/1 (1979–80), 53–75
  • G. Ballard, Memoirs of several ladies of Great Britain, ed. R. Perry (1985), 382–92
  • J. Harris, Samuel Richardson (1987)
  • R. Perry, The celebrated Mary Astell (1986)
  • R. Perry, ‘Mary Astell and the feminist critique of possessive individualism’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 23 (1989–90), 444–57
  • Political writings: Astell, ed. P. Springborg (1996)
  • Mary Astell: A serious proposal to the ladies, parts I and II, ed. P. Springborg (1997)

Archives

  • Badminton House, Gloucestershire, letters to Anne, countess of Coventry
  • Bodl. Oxf., MSS Ballard, MSS Rawlinson
  • Newcastle Central Library, St John's parish register
Bodleian Library, Oxford
Cambridge University Library
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)