Perdita woman: Mary Astell


Mary Astell was born in Newcastle in 1666, the daughter of a coal merchant, Peter Astell, and his wife, Mary Errington, an heiress from an old Catholic family. The Astell family was staunchly Royalist and Anglican, and Mary and her brother Peter (born in 1668) were brought up in the Church of England. Mary may have received some of her education (and imbibed more of her Royalist beliefs), from her uncle Ralph. Ralph Astell may also have helped to instigate his niece's strong interest in the writings of the Cambridge Platonists, as he had studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in the 1650s, when the key texts of Cambridge Platonism were being written and discussed.

Astell's father died in 1679 and her mother in 1684. A few years later - probably in 1686, though the exact date is unknown -- Astell moved to London, and settled in Chelsea. She appears to have struggled financially during her first few years in London: hence her dedication of her manuscript poetry to William Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury. Marginal dates in the manuscript, however, indicate that the poetry had been composed over a period of years: the earliest date attached to an individual poem is 18 March 1683, before her mother's death, while the latest - 7 January 1687/8 - probably postdates her arrival in London. The choice of Sancroft - about to be stripped of his Archbishopric for his fidelity to James II and the hereditary principle - as patron of her poetry is an early indication of the non-juring Tory doctrines to which Astell was to be faithful all her life.

Little else is known about her early years in London, but in 1693 she began a philosophical correspondence with John Norris, a Platonist - sometimes described as the last Cambridge Platonist - and one of the earliest English critics of John Locke. Norris encouraged Astell's reading of French philosophy, and in 1695 arranged the publication of their correspondence as Letters concerning the Love of God. Meanwhile, Astell had already published (anonymously) her tract A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest (1694), which advocated the foundation of an educational academy for women. In this and later publications, her energetic exposition of the injustices suffered by women in contemporary England is joined with a conservative respect for hierarchy and tradition; thus in Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700), she deplores the low status of married women, and defends a woman's right to abstain from matrimony, but concedes the necessity for women to defer to their husbands within marriage.

In a fiercely partisan age, Astell was not only a convinced Tory but a determined controversialist. Many of her later prose writings were produced in direct response to publications by her political opponents. In A Fair Way With The Dissenters (1704), written in response to Defoe's satire The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, she calls for the destruction of Protestant Dissent as a political force. Moderation truly Stated (1704), written against the Presbyterian James Owen, denounces the practice of occasional conformity, whereby Dissenters qualified for public office by occasionally attending Church of England services. In An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil War in this Kingdom (1704) she identifies Whigs and Dissenters as the main source of political instability in England, rejecting the threat allegedly presented by Catholicism. The Christian Religion, as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England (1705) defends the established church against the religious heterodoxy (as she saw it) of Locke's The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) and Damaris Masham's A Discourse concerning the Love of God (1696). Her last published book was Bart'lemy Fair (1709), a polemic addressed to the Whiggish Kit-Cat Club, attacking the Earl of Shaftesbury's Letter Concerning Enthusiasm. In all these books, Astell's writing is distinguished by its rigorous logic, its irony, and her merciless exposure of any errors in the arguments of her opponents - and even of her own allies. One such ally, the conservative bishop Francis Atterbury, was (on his own account) astonished and offended when she suggested improvements to his polemic against the Whig cleric Benjamin Hoadley (Perry, pp. 216-221).

Astell's controversial writings elicited responses from such distinguished contemporary writers as Defoe, Locke, Steele and Swift. However, she took no part in literary society in London, but lived quietly in Chelsea, where in 1709, supported by her patrons Lady Elizabeth Hastings and Lady Catherine Jones, she opened a charity school under the auspices of the Royal Hospital. After 1709 she published no more of her writings, but continued to correspond with friends and associates. Her acquaintances included the pioneering Anglo-Saxon scholar, Elizabeth Elstob. In about 1715 she became acquainted with the young Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and later tried unsuccessfully to persuade her to publish her Turkist Embassy Letters, her memoirs of her residence in Turkey. Astell also wrote a preface for Montagu's manuscript copy of the Embassy Letters.

Astell spent the last years of her life as a permanent member of Lady Catherine Jones's household in Chelsea. She died of breast cancer in 1731.


Astell, Mary, Political Writings, ed. Patricia Springborg (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Hill, Bridget, The First English Feminist (Aldershot, Hants.: Gower Publishing, 1986).

Perry, Ruth, The Celebrated Mary Astell (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1986).

Bodleian Library: MS Rawl. poet. 154
Presentation verse manuscript (1689)
(Author, Scribe)Mary Astell