Mary Astell’s pithy, proto-feminist Reflections Upon Marriage (1700) was a radical treatise exposing the inequalities of early modern marriage practices.
What were Astell’s views on marriage?
Astell recognised that when a woman married she put ‘herself entirely into her husband’s power, and if the matrimonial yoke be grievous, neither law nor custom affords her that redress which a man obtains’ (p. 27).
She advised women to either abstain from ‘electing a monarch for life’ (p. 31), or, if they must, to first equip themselves with an education in order to better understand the gravity of marriage, and the importance of their betrothed’s nature, intent and position in the world. Under no circumstances did Astell advocate divorce, which contradicted her belief that marriage was an unbreakable union in the eyes of God.
Early modern marriage practices and The Rover
The conventions of wooing were one-sided in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and as such women had very little control over their marital opportunities: ‘A woman indeed can’t properly be said to choose, all that is allowed her is to refuse or accept what is offered’ (p. 22).
Aphra Behn (1640?–1689) explored this idea in her boisterous comedy The Rover. The plot concerns two noble Neapolitan sisters, Hellena and Florinda, and their refusal to accept their father’s wishes that one enter a nunnery and the other marry an old man. As Hellena boldly states in the opening scene: ‘I’m resolved to provide myself this carnival, if there be e’er a handsome proper fellow of my humour above ground’ (1.1., 42–44).
Who was Mary Astell?
Mary Astell (1666–1731) was a writer and philosopher who lived and worked in London under the patronage of the progressive ladies at court, including the writers Anne Coventry, Countess of Coventry (1673–1763) and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762). Astell never married but instead devoted her life to intellectual pursuits: she was the first woman to study astronomy at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, and corresponded with the most influential academics of the era.
Astell was also a tireless advocate of universal education for women, publishing the controversial but widely read manifesto A Serious Proposal to the Ladies which detailed a plan to set up an academy for women, funded by their dowries. Although her idealised vision in A Serious Proposal never came to fruition, in 1709 Astell set up, funded and created the curriculum for a charity school in Chelsea for the daughters of war veterans.
Astell’s ideas and bombastic style both influenced and incensed writers of her own and subsequent generations. Daniel Defoe (1660?–1731) plagiarised her plan for a female academy in Essay on Projects (1697). Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) and Sir Richard Steele (bap. 1672, d. 1729) attacked and ridiculed her work in The Tatler magazine. Later writers, such as Samuel Richardson (bap. 1689, d. 1761) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), used her life and work as inspiration for their own literature.
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