Renaissance and Reformation Mary Astell
by
Jacqueline Broad
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0205

Introduction

Mary Astell (b. 1666–d. 1731) is widely considered to be one of the earliest English feminists. She is best known for her prose works A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (Part 1, 1694; Part 2, 1697) and Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700). The first Proposal to the Ladies, subtitled “For the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest. By a Lover of Her Sex,” is an eloquent appeal for the higher education of women in early modern England. The second part, “Wherein a Method is Offered for the Improvement of their Minds,” extends a further plea to the ladies of quality, urging them to practice Cartesian rules for thinking in order to attain virtue and wisdom. In the Reflections, Astell provides a careful analysis of the most common causes of marital discontent in her time. In order to avoid such discontent, she suggests, women ought to be educated thoroughly so that they will choose their husbands wisely—or else not marry at all. In Astell’s heyday (c. 1694–1709), these works were greatly admired, and she was celebrated by leading literary figures, such as Daniel Defoe, John Evelyn, and Mary Chudleigh. Among 21st-century scholars, the consensus view is that Astell’s feminist ideas must be understood in the context of her wider political, philosophical, and religious principles. Recent commentators have interpreted Astell’s feminist writings in light of her support for the Tory political party, her Cartesian-Platonist philosophy, and her utter devotion to the Anglican religion. There has been a substantial amount of work on her political thought in relation to the radical Whig ideology of John Locke. More recently, scholars have delved deeper into Astell’s religio-philosophical writings, including her Letters Concerning the Love of God (with John Norris, 1695) and The Christian Religion, as Professed by a Daughter of the Church of England (1705). Scholars have also begun to appreciate Astell’s use of poetry, rhetoric, and figurative language more generally. Some have claimed her as a successor to John Milton, while others have credited her with influencing Samuel Richardson’s literary masterpiece, Clarissa. This entry lists the principal overviews and biographies of Astell, as well as the standard editions of her works. It also covers five key areas of Astell scholarship: her feminist views (on education and marriage), her politics, her philosophy, her religion, and the literary aspects of her work.

General Overviews

For those readers new to Astell studies, Perry 1986 is the best place to begin. This biography provides the most comprehensive overview of Astell’s life and career, carefully situating her thought in relation to its original historical-intellectual and political context. For those looking for an essay-length overview, Hill 1986 is a good choice: while Hill is sometimes a tad speculative (especially regarding Astell’s supposed lesbianism), on the whole she provides an engaging and detailed account of Astell’s life and works. Both Norton 1961 and Perry 1986 provide reasonably comprehensive bibliographical checklists of Astell’s known titles (all of which were published anonymously). In terms of monographs, Springborg 2005 and Sutherland 2005 offer thematically focused interpretations of Astell’s writings: the first from the perspective of her conservative political values, the second with an emphasis on her approach to rhetoric. Both provide valuable insight into Astell’s thought. A recent collection, Kolbrener and Michelson 2007, brings together several admirable studies of all the major themes in Astell scholarship—feminism, politics, philosophy, religion, and poetry. For those looking to catch up on the latest research since Perry 1986, this edited volume is an excellent choice.

  • Hill, Bridget. “Introduction.” In The First English Feminist: “Reflections Upon Marriage” and Other Writings by Mary Astell. Edited by Bridget Hill, 1–62. New York: St. Martin’s, 1986.

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    Contains a useful essay-length overview of Astell’s life and works, and an account of her views on education, marriage, politics, morality, and religion.

  • Kolbrener, William, and Michal Michelson, eds. Mary Astell: Reason, Gender, Faith. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

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    An excellent collection of twelve original essays by various scholars. Topics range from Astell’s poetry and religion to her philosophy and politics, all making reference to gender issues. Includes useful editors’ introduction on Astell’s critical reception, available online.

  • Norton, Jane Elizabeth. “Some Uncollected Authors XXVII: Mary Astell, 1666–1731.” Book Collector 10 (1961): 58–65.

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    This early bibliographical essay provides a handy, accurate five-page checklist of Astell’s known works, including different editions. A slightly more comprehensive list is available in Perry 1986.

  • Perry, Ruth. The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

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    Highly influential scholarly monograph. Anyone unfamiliar with Astell should begin with this engaging overview of her life and works. Appendices contain Astell’s letters, poems, and various other transcriptions from MS sources.

  • Springborg, Patricia. Mary Astell: Theorist of Freedom from Domination. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511499203E-mail Citation »

    Demonstrates how Astell’s writings are informed by commitment to High-Church Anglican and conservative Tory causes in early-18th-century England. Brings together material from seven previously published essays in one handy volume. Best suited to advanced scholars.

  • Sutherland, Christine Mason. The Eloquence of Mary Astell. Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press, 2005.

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    Provides a clear and accessible interpretation of Astell’s works as models of rhetoric in terms of argument, style, and structure. Good introduction for students of language and literature.

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