The Eloquence of Mary Astell

The Eloquence of Mary Astell

The Eloquence of Mary Astell

The Eloquence of Mary Astell

Synopsis

The Eloquence of Mary Astell makes an important contribution to the knowledge and understanding of the important role that women, and one woman in particular, played in the history of rhetoric. Mary Astell (1666-1731) was an unusually perceptive thinker and writer during the time of the Enlightenment. Here, author Christine Sutherland explores her importance as a rhetorician, an area that has, until recently, received little attention. Astell was widely known and respected during her own time, but her influence and reputation receded in the years after her death. Her importance as an Enlightenment thinker is becoming more and more recognized, however. As a skilled theorist and practitioner of rhetoric, Astell wrote extensively on education, philosophy, politics, religion, and the status of women. She showed that it was possible for a woman to move from the semi-private form of rhetoric represented by conversation and letters into full public participation in philosophical and political debate.

Excerpt

Mary Astell is not a well-known figure. Something of a celebrity in her own day, she had fallen out of fashion by the time of her death in 1731, and although her memory was revived and preserved for a time by George Ballard in the 1750s, she quickly faded once more from view. Not until Florence Smith’s important biography of her was published in 1916 was interest in her once more aroused, and even since then the recovery has been slow. Astell was a political writer, a philosopher and an educationist as well an eloquent advocate for women, but it was principally as a feminist that she was brought forward again by Ruth Perry in her magisterial biography of 1986, The Celebrated Mary Astell. As for historians of rhetoric, they ignored her entirely until the 1980s, and even now she is not as well-known as she ought to be. Since the assumed audience for this book is rhetoricians and students of rhetoric, as well as, I hope, some feminists and even general readers, the first task must be to introduce Mary Astell and to explain why it is important for us to study her. Why, after nearly three centuries of neglect, should we pay attention to her now? In particular, why should she be studied by rhetoricians and historians of rhetoric? Answering these questions is the purpose of the present enquiry.

Astell was a native of Newcastle, a city in the far north of England. She was born in 1666 to a middle-class family that was coming down in the world. The family belonged to the gentry – they had the right to bear arms. At the time this was an important social distinction. Her standing as a member of the gentry affected not only her sense of her own identity but also her opportunities for employment. Peter Astell, Mary’s father, belonged to a highly prestigious guild known as the hostmen, associated with the coal industry, as was the family of her mother, Mary Errington. Peter Astell had served a long apprenticeship, and in fact qualified as a hostman only a few years before his early death. There were only two children in the family, Mary and her younger brother Peter. It was common practice at the time for girls to be included in the primary education provided for their brothers, and Peter and Mary . . .

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