Mary Astell Critical Essays

Introduction

Mary Astell 1666-1731

English nonfiction writer, essayist, and poet.

Astell is often called the first British feminist. She published works on various contentious subjects, ranging from women's education and marriage to political and religious philosophy. Issuing her essays and pamphlets anonymously to guard her privacy, Astell weighed in on many controversial issues of the day, particularly those concerning the status of women. In such pamphlets as A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest (1694) and Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700), Astell expressed her belief that women should not be forced into marriage and promoted the idea of a Protestant equivalent of a convent, where unmarried women could devote themselves to education and religious concerns. In Some Reflections upon Marriage and other writings, including The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England (1705), Astell also showed herself to be an astute critic of the social theories of John Locke. Though hailed as an early feminist, Astell was a complex figure whose support of the monarchy and the Anglican Church is sometimes seen as contradictory to her feminist views. However, it is just such complexity in Astell's thought that has been the source of much scholarly interest during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Biographical Information

Not much is known for certain about Astell's life. There are only a few contemporary biographies, and much information in them seems to be based on rumor, with many periods of her life unaccounted for. What is known is that Astell was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, into a family that was involved in commerce and somewhat well-to-do. She received much of her education from her uncle, Ralph Astell, a curate at St. Nicholas's church in Newcastle. He gave her a good education for the time, probably teaching her logic, mathematics, and philosophy, and perhaps Latin and French as well. Although her uncle died when Astell was 13 years old, she probably continued to read on her own, and it is surmised that her family may have hired a tutor for her. After the death of Astell's father, Peter, in 1678, the family suffered financial difficulties. These were compounded six years later, when her mother, also named Mary, died as well. Orphaned at the age of 18, Astell moved to London before the age of 20. Not much is known about Astell's early years in London. She may have been helped by Archbishop Sancroft, to whom she sent two volumes of her poetry in 1689. Astell eventually surrounded herself with a circle of other educated women who shared her intellectual concerns, including Lady Catherine Jones (to whom she dedicated at least one work and with whom she may have lived at one point), Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Elizabeth Estob, and Lady Elizabeth Hastings. Residing primarily in Chelsea, Astell lived a retiring, even ascetic life, perhaps necessitated by ill health, and preferred to release her works anonymously. Beginning with the publication of her first work, A Serious Proposal, in 1694, Astell entered her most productive period, issuing eight works in a little more than a decade. She also tried to put into practice the ideas she proposed in her writings. None of her proposals were implemented, however—at least in a form she would have approved—though a school for girls was established in Chelsea by others in 1729. The suggestion for a Protestant nunnery she made in A Serious Proposal met with resistance because it had Popish implications. At the end of her life Astell became increasingly reclusive and concealed the fact that she had breast cancer. Despite surgery to remove her breast, Astell died from the disease in 1731. She was buried in Chelsea.

Major Works

Most of Astell's works are concerned with the religious, social, and political questions of her day. Writing in an aggressive, confident style, Astell debated in print with some of the leading intellectuals of the period. Although not all of her works directly address women's issues, her sex and her concerns about women's status pervade many of her texts. They continually argue against the notion that women are naturally inferior and maintain that women should be educated in intellectual matters to make them better Christians. A Serious Proposal argues for an alternative to marriage and urges that a “Religious Retirement” be founded for women to devote themselves to education and religious matters. This work had at least four editions, and was followed by A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Part II. Wherein a Method Is Off'd for the Improvement of their Minds in 1697. A response to objections to Astell's original proposal, this work offers a way for women to educate themselves, expounds on the philosophy behind potential methods, and discusses the search for truth. Some Reflections upon Marriage expands on the views propounded in A Serious Proposal, contending that women should not marry out of duty nor be forced into a situation of subjugation, but instead should marry prudently. Astell stresses the need for equality in marriage and endorses spinsterhood as an acceptable alternative. Here and elsewhere Astell bases her views on a foundation of religious principles; indeed, religion was the primary focus of many of Astell's other works. Of particular note is a volume of Astell's correspondence with John Norris, the Rector of Bemerton. In 1695 Norris published their letters under the title Letters Concerning the Love of God Between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris. In the letters the two debate the nature of God and divine love, why pain and sin exist, and other spiritual concerns. Astell's 1705 work, The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England, also considers the nature of God and His affect on humans and their lives. In addition to again raising issues related to women's education, this work critiques the theories of Locke and others, exploring ideas of political philosophy and their relationship to religion. Religious themes were also at the forefront of Astell's last published work, Bart'lemy Fair or an Enquiry After Wit (1709). Written in response to Lord Shaftsbury's 1708 pamphlet, Letter concerning Enthusiasm, this text by Astell, a staunch supporter of the Anglican church, assails Shaftsbury's call for a rational, moderate religion.

Critical Reception

During her lifetime Astell was a respected participant in the social and philosophical debates of the day and was actively involved in the so-called Battle of the Books. Although she was often vilified in the press for her proposals concerning women's education and marriage, and her ideas were satirized by many, including Jonathan Swift, Astell was recognized for playing a role in the educational development of women. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, Astell's writings and contributions were largely forgotten. A slight revival of interest in Astell in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries resulted in the first full-length study of the author, Florence M. Smith's 1916 publication, Mary Astell. It was not until the latter half of the twentieth century, however, that there was significant and sustained critical interest in Astell's life and works. Recent criticism has focused on the nature of Astell's feminist views, placing them in the contexts of the author's own life and experiences—particularly their relationship to her religious beliefs—contemporary attitudes regarding women in society, and prevailing social and political philosophies. Some scholars have pointed out inconsistencies between some of her positions, such as that between her progressive social stance and her conservative religious and political beliefs. What has emerged for critics is a picture of an intriguing and complex figure, a woman holding perhaps contradictory opinions but nevertheless a woman of penetrating intellect whose critiques of John Locke significantly anticipated those of later commentators, a woman who could be witty and assertive—even aggressive—in the defense of her beliefs, and a woman who preferred to live obscurely and publish anonymously while engaging in broad public debates on contentious social and political questions.