Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Astell, Mary

ASTELL, MARY (1668–1731), authoress, was the daughter of a merchant at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Her uncle, a clergyman, observing her excellent abilities, undertook to educate her himself. She passed the first twenty years of her life at Newcastle; she then settled in London, and afterwards at Chelsea, where she was a neighbour and acquaintance of Dean Atterbury. She was the intimate friend, to the end of her life, of the excellent Lady Elizabeth Hastings, and the esteemed con-espondent of Norris of Bemerton.

Mary Astell is now chiefly known as the authoress of a 'Serious Proposal to Ladies' (1694). It was published anonymously 'by a Lover of her Sex;' but the authorship appears to have been an open secret. The proposal was, in her own words, 'to erect a monastery, or, if you will (to avoid giving offence to the scrupulous and injudicious by names which, tho' innocent in themselves, have been abus'd by superstitious practices), we will call it a Religious Retirement, and such as shall have a double aspect, being not only a retreat from the world for those who desire that advantage, but likewise an institution and previous discipline to fit us to do the greatest good in it.' There were to be no vows or irrevocable obligations, not so much as the fear of reproach to keep the ladies longer than they desired.' It was to be conducted strictly on the principles of the church of England; the daily services were to be performed 'after the cathedral manner, in the most affecting and elevating way;' the 'Holy Eucharist was to be celebrated every Lord's day and holy day;' there was to be 'a course of solid, instructive preaching and catechizing,' and the inmates were to 'consider it a special part of their duty to observe all the fasts of the church.' But it was intended quite as much for mental as for moral and religious training; or, rather, the two were to go hand in hand, for 'ignorance and a narrow education lay the foundation of vice.' The proposal, she tells us, met with a favourable reception from 'the graver and wiser part of the world,' and therefore she published in 1697 a second part, much longer than the first, 'wherein a method is offered for the improvement of their minds;' and this she dedicated to the Princess of Denmark, afterwards Queen Anne. The proposal, however, met with unmerited obloquy from more than one quarter. 'A certain great lady,' supposed by some to have been the Princess Anne herself, by others the Lady Elizabeth Hastings, was so attracted by the scheme that she purposed giving 10,000l. towards the erection of a 'sort of college for the education and improvement of the female sex, and as a retreat for those ladies who, nauseating the parade of the world, might here find a happy recess from the noise and hurry of it. But the design coming to the ears of Bishop Burnet, he immediately went to that lady, and so powerfully remonstrated against it, telling her it would look like preparing a way for popish orders, and would be reputed a nunnery, that he utterly frustrated that noble design' (Ballard). The alarm was surely unfounded. Mrs. Astell observes with perfect truth, in the 'conclusion' of her second part: 'They must either be very ignorant or very malicious who pretend that we would imitate foreign monasteries, or object against us the inconveniences that they are subject to. A little attention to what they read might have convinced them that our institution is rather academical than monastic.'

However, the project fell to the ground; but not without drawing upon its well-intentioned proposer a still more unmerited and, unfortunately, a more widely circulated aspersion. In the 32nd number of the 'Tatler' appeared what the annotator of the edition of 1797 justly terms a 'gross misrepresentation' of Mrs. Astell under the name of 'Madonella.' There is not a shadow of foundation for the insinuation against Mrs. Astell's personal character, and the account of the proposed college betrays a profound ignorance of the whole scheme which that good lady projected. The slander was repeated in the 59th and 63rd numbers of the same periodical; and in the latter it is stated (no doubt with the intention of turning the whole affair into ridicule) that Mrs. Manley, authoress of that vile work, the 'New Atalantis,' was to be the directress of the new institution. The whole story would be unworthy of mention, were it not that it appeared in so famous a paper as the 'Tatler,' and that the great names of Swift and Addison are supposed to be connected with the writing of it. 'Madonella' is called 'Platonne,' but the next point to be noticed in her literary career is her controversy with one of the most distinguished of English Platonists, John Norris, of Bemerton, about one of the pivot doctrines of Platonism, the pure love of God. She again wrote anonymously, but her name was soon discovered. If Mrs. Astell met with unmerited obloquy for her 'Serious Proposal,' the balance was partly redressed by the extravagant eulogy which her antagonist, and editor of the 'Letters,' lavished upon her. As a matter of fact, the 'Letters' are full of pertinent inquiries, and prove the writer to have been, at any rate, a very intelligent woman. In 1705 Mrs. Astell published an octavo volume entitled 'The Christian Religion, as professed by a Daughter of the Church of England,' which gives a clear exposition of Church teaching, according to the type of the great Caroline divines; it strongly advocates the doctrine of non-resistance, and protests strongly against Romanism. It was published anonymously, but everybody knew who the 'Daughter of the Church of England' was. Another anonymous work, entitled 'Occasional Communion' (1705), is attributed to Mrs. Astell by Dean Hickes, who describes it as being 'justly admired so much.' As its title implies, it deals with what was the burning question of the day. In 1706 we find her engaged in a controversy with her neighbour, Dean Atterbury, who sends her 'Remarks' to his friend Smalridge, 'taking them to be of an extraordinary nature, considering they come from the pen of a woman;' 'had she,' he adds, 'as much good breeding as good sense, she would be perfect. She attacks me very home.' She also wrote against Locke's 'Reasonableness of Christianity,' against Tillotson's famous sermon on the eternity of hell torments, and against a sermon of Dr. White Kennett, and on each occasion proved herself an acute controversialist. Henry Dodwell speaks of her as 'that admirable gentlewoman, Mrs. Astell,' and she deserved the title: for her life was blameless, and her writings show that her abilities and attainments were considerably above the average, though she may not have been so extraordinary a genius as her admirers imagined.

[Mrs. Astell's Works, passim; Ballard's Memoirs of British Ladies, &c.; Folkestone Williams's Memoirs and Correspondence of Bishop Atterbury.]

J. H. O.