Mary Astell: Reason, Gender, Faith

Mary Astell: Reason, Gender, Faith

Mary Astell: Reason, Gender, Faith

Mary Astell: Reason, Gender, Faith


Mary Astell: Reason, Gender, Faith includes essays from diverse disciplinary perspectives to consider the full range of Astell's political, theological, philosophical, and poetic writings. The volume does not eschew the more traditional scholarly interest in Astell's concerns about gender; rather, it reveals how Astell's works require attention not only for their role in the development of early modern feminism, but also for their interventions on subjects ranging from political authority to educational theory, from individual agency to divine service, and from Cartesian ethics to Lockean epistemology. Given the vast breadth of her writings, her active role within early modern political and theological debates, and the sophisticated complexity of her prose, Astell has few parallels among her contemporaries. Mary Astell: Reason, Gender, Faith bestows upon Astell the attention which she deserves not merely as a proto-feminist, but as a major figure of the early modern period.


Let me obscured be, & never known
Or pointed at about the Town,
Short winded Fame shall not transmit
My name, that the next Age may censure it:
If I write sense no matter what they say,
Whither they call it dull, or pay
A rev’rence such as Virgil claims,
Their breath’s infectious, I have higher aims.


When Mary Astell presented a copy of her poems to Archbishop Sancroft, she wrote, in an accompanying dedicatory letter, that it “was not without pain and reluctancy” that she broke off from what she called her “beloved obscurity.” In writing of Astell in his Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain of 1752, George Ballard would transform Astell’s fondness for “obscurity” into a recurring theme in his account of her life. Astell, according to Ballard, expressed “modesty” in the publication of all of her works, being, as he writes, “extremely fond” of that “obscurity” which “she courted and doted on beyond all earthly blessings.” Her only ambition was, Ballard writes (citing from Astell’s own preface to Letters Concerning the Love of God), “to slide gently through the world without so much as being seen or taken notice of.” As Ballard would have it, without the “restless curiousity” of others, Astell would have maintained the obscurity that she desperately cultivated and always desired. Ballard, as Margaret Ezell has written, may have been more “didactic” than “objective,” but it was Astell herself who asserted the wish to “most industriously shun a great Reputation,” declaring herself unwilling to receive praise “from any but an infallible Judge.”

Reprinted in Ruth Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell (Chicago, 1986), 405, 400.

George Ballard, Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain, ed. Ruth Perry (Detroit, 1985), 383. Astell, according to Ballard, displayed the same reluctance for publicity in the publication of her Moderation Truly Stated: “In spite of all the arts she used to conceal herself, the learned soon discovered her to be the author, and accordingly gave her the applause due to her merit,” 386.

Margaret J.M. Ezell, Writing Women’s Literary History (Baltimore, 1996), 79; Mary Astell and John Norris, Letters Concerning the Love of God (London, 1695), 4.

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