Astell, Mary

, a learned and ingenious lady, was the daughter of Mr. Astell, a merchant at Newcastle-uponTyne, where she was born about 1668. Her uncle, who was a clergyman, having discovered her superior capacity, generously undertook to be her preceptor and, under his tuition, she learned Italian and French, and made a considerable progress in logic, philosophy, and the mathematics. At the age of twenty, she left Newcastle and went to London, where, and at Chelsea, she spent the remaining part of her life. Here she assiduously prosecuted her studies, and acquired very considerable attainments in all the branches of polite literature. When the Rev. John Morris published his “Practical Discourses upon divine subjects,” several excellent letters passed between him and Mrs. Astell upon the love of God, which, at the request of Mr. Morris, she suffered him to publish in 1695, without her name, a precaution which their merit rendered useless. Having often observed and lamented the defects in the education of her sex, which, she said, were the principal causes of their running into so many follies and improprieties, she published in 1696, an ingenious treatise, entitled, “A serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the advancement of their true and greatest interest,” &c. and, some time after, a second part, under the same title, with this addition “wherein a Method is offered for the Improvement of their Minds.” Both these performances were published together in 1696, and had, in some measure, the desired effect. The scheme, indeed, in her proposal, seemed so rational, that a certain opulent lady, supposed to be the queen, intended to have given 10,000l. towards the erecting a sort of college for the education and improvement of the female sex and as a retreat to those ladies who preferred retirement and study to the noise and hurry of the world. Bishop Burnet, hearing of the design, went to the lady, and powerfully remonstrated against it, telling her it would look like paving the way for popish orders, and that it would be reputed a nunnery; in consequence of which the design was relinquished. About seven years after, she printed “An Essay | in Defence of the Female Sex. In a Letter to a Lady. Written by a Lady.” These publications did not prevent her from being as intent on her studies as ever and when, she accidentally saw needless visitors coming, whom she knew to be incapable of conversing on useful subjects, instead of ordering herself to be denied, she used to look out at the window, and jestingly tell them, “Mrs. Astell was not at home.” In the course of her studies she became intimately acquainted with many classic authors. Those she admired most were Xenophon, Plato, Hierocles, Tully, Seneca, Epictetus, and M. Antoninus. In 1700, she published a book entitled “Reflections-on Marriage,” occasioned, as it is said, by a disappointment she experienced in a marriage-contract with an eminent clergyman. However that might be, in the next edition of her book, 1705, she added a preface, in answer to some objections, which perhaps is the strongest defence that ever appeared in print, of the rights and abilities of her own sex.

When Dr. D‘ Avenant published his “Moderation a Virtue,” and his “Essay on Peace and War,” she answered him in 1704, in a tract entitled “Moderation truly stated.” The same year D’ Avenant published a new edition of his works, with remarks on hers, to which she immediately replied in a postscript, and although without her name, she was soon discovered, and distinguished with public approbation. Some eminent men of the time bear testimony to the merit of her works, as Hickes, Walker, Norris, Dodwell, Evelyn, and bishop Atterbury, who praises her controversial powers, but with a hint that a little more urbanity of manner would not have weakened her arguments. Among her other works was “An impartial Inquiry into the Causes of Rebellion and Civil Wars in this kingdom, in an examination of Dr. Rennet’s Sermon, Jan. 30, 1703-4.” “A fair way with Dissenters and their Patrons, not writ by Mr. Lindsay, or any other furious jacobite, whether a clergyman or a layman but by a very moderate person and dutiful subject of the queen,1704. “The Christian Religion, as practised by a daughter of the Church of England,1705. This was suspected to be the work of Atterbury. “Six familiar Essays upon Marriage, Crosses in Love, and Friendship,1706. “Bart'lemy Fair, or an Inquiry after Wit,1700, occasioned by colonel Hunter’s celebrated Letter on Enthusiasm. It was republished in 1722, without the words * Bart‘lemy Fair.’ Although | living and conversing with the fashionable world, she led a pious life, generally calm and serene, and her deportment and conversation were highly entertaining and social. She used to say, the good Christian only has reason, and he always ought to be cheerful and that dejected looks and melancholy airs were very unseemly in a Christian. But though she was easy and affable to others, she was severe towards herself. She was abstemious in a very great degree frequently living many days together on bread and water and at other times, when at home, rarely eat any dinner till night, and then sparingly. She would frequently say, abstinence was her best physic and that those who indulge themselves in eating and drinking, could not be so well disposed or prepared, either for study, or the regular and devout service of their Creator.

She enjoyed an uninterrupted state of health, till a few years before her death, when a cancer in her breast, which she concealed, except from a few of her most intimate acquaintance, impaired her constitution very much. She managed it herself, till it was absolutely necessary to submit to amputation, which she did without discovering the least timidity or impatience, without a groan or a sigh; and shewed the same resolution and resignation during her whole illness. When she was confined to her bed by a gradual decay, and the time of her dissolution drew near, she ordered her shrowd and coffin to be made, and brought to her bed-side, and there to remain in her view, as a constant memento of her approaching fate, and to keep her mind fixed on proper contemplations. She died May 24, 1731, in the 63d year of her age, and was buried at Chelsea. 1


Biog. Brit.—Ballard’s Memoirs of Learned Ladies.—Atterbury’s Correspondence, vol. I. 396, vol. V. p. 287.—Tatler, 8vo, 1806, vol. I. 346, 349, III. 364, IV. 448.