A Celebration of Women Writers

"Mary Astell." by George Ballard (1706-1755).
Ballard, George. Memoirs of several ladies of Great Britain, who have been celebrated for their writings or skill in the learned languages, arts, and sciences. Oxford: Printed by W. Jackson, for the author, 1752. pp. 445-460.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 445]

MARY ASTELL.

THIS great ornament of her sex and country, was born at Newcastle upon Tyne, in the county of Northumberland, about the year 1668; and was the daughter of — Astell, merchant, in that place. She was very genteely educated; and taught all the accomplishments which are usually learned by young gentlewomen of her station: and altho' she proceeded no farther in the languages at that time, than the learning of the French tongue; yet she afterwards gain'd some knowledge in the Latin. And having a piercing wit, a solid judgment, and tenacious memory, she made herself a complete mistress of every thing she attempted to learn with the greatest ease imaginable.

Her excellent natural parts and great propensity to learning, being observ'd by an uncle who was a clergyman, he generously undertook to be her preceptor: under his tuition she made a considerable progress in philosophy, mathematicks, and logic.

At about twenty years of age she left Newcastle and went to London, where, and at Chelsey, she spent the remaining part of her life. Here she prosecuted her studies very assiduously, and in a little time made great acquisitions in the abovementioned sciences.

The learning and knowledge which she had gained, together with her great benevolence and generosity of temper, [Page 446: tem- per,] taught her to observe and lament the loss of it in those of her own sex: the want of which, as she justly observed, was the principal cause of their plunging themselves into so many follies and inconveniences.

To redress this evil as much as lay in her power to do, she wrote and published an ingenious treatise, intitled, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of their true and greatest Interest, &c. And some time after came out a second part, with this title, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part the Second: Wherein a Method is offered for the Improvement of their Minds. Both those performances were printed together, in 12mo. at London, 1697. These books contributed not a little towards awakening their minds, and lessening their esteem for those trifling amusements which steal away too much of their time; and towards putting them upon employing their faculties the right way, in the pursuit of useful knowledge. Nay, the scheme given in her proposal, seemed so reasonable, and wrought so far upon a certain great lady, that she had designed to give ten thousand pounds towards erecting a sort of college for the education and improvement of the female sex: and as a retreat for these ladies who nauseating the parade of the world, might here find a happy recess from the noise and hurry of it. But this 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, that it would be reputed a Nunnery, &c. that he utterly frustrated that noble design.

Soon after the publication of the first part of her Proposal, &c. the Rev. Mr. John Norris published his Practical Discourses upon Several Divine Subjects. — Which being very carefully perused by Mrs. Astell, raised several doubts and scruples in [Page 447] her concerning the Love of God. — She address'd herself to that excellent Divine for the solution of those difficulties. This occasioned the passing of several excellent letters between them upon that subject: which being thought worthy of seeing the light by so proper a judge as Mr. Norris, at his importunity she at last consented they should be made publick; tho' without disclosing so much as the initial letters of her name. The same modesty she used in the publication of all her other works; being extremely fond of obscurity, which she courted and doted on beyond all earthly blessings; and was as ambitious to slide gently through the world, without so much as being seen or taken notice of, as others are to bustle and make a figure in it. She wrote an elegant preface, which, with another drawn up by Mr. Norris, are prefixed to this work, which bears the following title. Letters concerning the Love of God, between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies, and Mr. John Norris: Wherein his late Discourse, shewing that it ought to be entire and exclusive of all other Loves, is cleared and justified. Publish'd by J. Norris. M. A. Rector of Bemerton near Sarum. London, 1695. 8vo.

Notwithstanding her great care to conceal herself, her name was soon discovered and made known to several learned persons, whose restless curiosity would otherwise hardly have been satisfied. Those letters have been much applauded for their good sense, sublime thoughts and fine language. And if there was nothing more remaining of this worthy gentlewoman's performances, this alone would perpetuate her memory to latest posterity. In all her writings which I have seen, but particularly in those letters to Mr. Norris, there is such a peculiar grace and excellency of style and thought, that what was once said of the works of Gregory Nazianzen, may very justly be applied to her, viz. That [Page 448] she never tires her readers, but always dismisseth them with a thirst after more. As a testimony of this, let Mr. Norris be my voucher, who in his preface to those letters addresses her in the following manner. —

"Madam, there are some pleasures that are always short, if time be their measure; and were your discourses here never so prolix, I should still think, and be ready to complain they were done too soon, so great and noble is the subject, and so admirable both your thoughts and expressions upon it; such choiceness of matter, such weight of sense, such art and order of contrivance, such clearness and strength of reasoning, such beauty of language, such address of stile, such bright and lively images and colours of things, and such moving strains of the most natural and powerful oratory, and all this season'd with such a tincture of piety, and seeming to come from a true inward vital principle of the most sincere and settled devotion."
And a little after, he adds,
"Madam, I am very sensible what obligations I am under to you for the privilege of your excellent correspondence, though I can never hope that my thanks should ever equal either the pleasure or the advantage I have received by it, or that I should be ever able to express the value I set upon your letters, either as to their ingenuity, or their piety. The former of which might make them an entertainment for an angel, and the latter sufficient (if possible) to make a saint of the blackest devil. I am sure for my own part, I have particular reason to thank you for them, having received great spiritual comfort and advantage by them, not only heat but light, intellectual as well as moral improvement; for, (as many discourses as there are upon the subject) to my knowledge I never met with any that have so [Page 449] enlighten'd my mind, inlarg'd my heart, so entered and took possession of my spirit, and have had such a general and commanding influence over my whole soul as these of yours."
I cannot find that she either wrote or publish'd any thing in seven years after the writing of these letters; excepting the second part of her Proposal to the Ladies; and a witty piece, commonly ascrib'd to her, intitled, An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex. In a Letter to a Lady. Written by a Lady. Wrote in the year 1696, and since often re-printed. acquirBut tho' we see not any product of her studies during that time, it is certain she was as intent as possible on the prosecution of them: and was so far devoted to them, (that as I have been informed by a relation of her's) when she has accidentally seen needless visitors coming, whom she knew to be incapable of discoursing upon any useful subject, but to come for the sake of chatt and tattle, she would look out at the window, and jestingly tell them (as Cato did Nasica) "Mrs. Astell is not at home;" and in good earnest keep them out, not suffering such triflers to make inroads upon her more serious hours.

At this time she acquir'd a more complete knowledge of many classic authors. The Heathen writers which she esteemed most, were, Zenophon, Plato, Hierocles, Tully, Seneca, Epictetus, and M. Antoninus.

In the year 1700, she drew up and published a book intitled, Reflections on Marriage. Some people think she has carried her arguments with regard to the birthrights and privileges of her sex a little too far, and that there is too much warmth of temper discovered in this treatise. [Page 450] But if those persons had known the motive 1 which induced her to write that tract; it might possibly have abated very much of their censure. It was not long before she understood that this composition did not please some very nice palates; whereupon she published a second edition, with this title, Reflections upon Marriage. To which is added a Preface, in answer to some objections. London, 1705. 2d. Edit. 8vo. This book, and the long preface prefixed to it, are both wrote with a vast deal of wit and smartness: and make perhaps the strongest defence that ever yet appeared in print, of the rights and abilities of the fair sex.

About this time, observing the pernicious artifices of the sectaries, she to her lasting honour, courageously and successfully attack'd them on all sides; and engaged the attention of the publick for a considerable time, with her productions; which were of excellent service in countermining the sly designs that were then very artfully carried on, in order to corrupt at present, and to subvert upon any proper opportunity, both church and state. Nor was she less serviceable to the church, in examining and confuting the doctrines of some, who pretending to be true sons thereof, were then introducing dangerous positions and tenets, derogatory to the honour of our blessed Saviour; as lessening his divinity, &c.

She thought none of those treatises threatned more danger to the establishment than Dr. D'Avenant's Moderation a Virtue: And Essays on Peace and War, &c. Therefore to put a stop to the spreading contagion arising from thence, she generously gave the world by way of antidote, an admirable composition intitled. Moderation truly [Page 451] stated: or a review of a late pamphlet intitled Moderation a Vertue, or, the Occasional Conformist Justify'd from the Imputation of Hypocrisy. Wherein this justification is further considered, and as far as it is capable justify'd, &c. London, 1704, 4to.

The prefatory discourse is addressed to Dr. D'Avenant and both that, and the book itself, will be a lasting testimony of her being admirably well versed in our constitution both in church and state: a rare accomplishment in a woman; but perhaps the less to be wondered at, in that reign, when the supreme government of both was committed to a female hand. I cannot forbear inserting the great character which was lately given me of this performance, by a learned friend, who among other things says,

"This book is a convincing proof of her great genius, strong sense, and solid judgment, and of her great affection to the church of England. It is written with so much life and spirit, that every sentence has a peculiar weight, derived from her wit, as well as reason; like an arrow that is at once directed with judgment, and thrown with strength. She has with a distinguished judgment dissected and display'd the ambitious views, and sinister designs of the dissenters; and discovered what abominable dissimulation and hypocrisy and self-interest lies concealed under their mask of superior piety, and how averse they are to practise that Moderation which they seem to recommend. In short she has fairly routed their champion Dr. D'Avenant, traced him through all his shufflings, and thrown his arguments in his face. It is in my opinion an incomparable book, and puts the character and principles of the dissenters in the truest light."

In spight of all the arts she used to conceal herself, the learned soon discovered her to be the author; and accordingly [Page 452] gave her the applause due to her merit. For in a letter which I have seen, wrote by that great master of almost all learning, Dr. Hickes, to Dr. Charlett, master of university college in Oxford, dated Dec. 9, 1704, treating of other books of this sort, he adds, "And you may now assure your self, that Mrs. Astell is the author of the other book against Occasional Communion, which we justly admired so much." And it may not perhaps be thought improper to observe in this place, that several other great men have paid their just tributes to her fame. Dr. John Walker 2 very respectfully calls her, the most ingenious Mrs. Astell. And the eminently learned Mr. Henry Dodwell styles 3 her the admirable gentlewoman Mrs. Astell. And Mr. Evelyn 4 takes notice of her among some other great ladies which he had omitted in his catalogue of learned women, in the following manner – "nor without the highest ingratitude for the satisfaction I still receive by what I read of Madam Astell's, — Besides what lately she has proposed to the virtuous of her sex, to shew by her own example what great things and excellencies it is capable of."

I must, in order to do justice to her character, add one more testimony of her, which is published in one of the supplemental volumes to Bayle's Great Historical Dictionary, Article Norris; which being very singular, and coming from the pen of an eminent prelate, deserves particular attention and consideration. 'Tis given by Dr. F. Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester, who in a letter of his to Dr. Smalridge, thus expresses his sentiments of Mrs. Astell. [Page 453]

"Dear George,

"I happened about a fortnight ago to dine with Mrs. Astell. She spoke to me of my Sermon," [which I suppose by what follows, is that which he preached, and afterwards printed against Bishop Hoadley's Measures of Submission.] "and desired me to print it: and after I had given the proper answer, hinted to me that she should be glad of perusing it, I complyed with her, and sent her the sermon the next day. Yesterday she returned it with this sheet of remarks, which I cannot forbear communicating to you, because I take 'em to be of an extraordinary nature, considering they came from the pen of a woman. Indeed one would not imagine a woman had written them. There is not an expression that carries the least air of her sex from the beginning to the end of it. She attacks me very home you see, and artfully enough, under a pretence of taking my part against other divines, who are in Hoadley's measures. Had she had as much good breeding as good sense, she would be perfect; but she has not the most decent manner of insinuating what she means, but is now and then a little offensive and shocking in her expressions; which I wonder at, because a civil turn of words is what her sex is always mistress of. She, I think is wanting in it. But her sensible and rational way of writing makes amends for that defect, if indeed any thing can make amends for it. I dread to engage her; so I only writ a general civil answer to her, and leave the rest to an Oral conference. Her way of solving the difficulty about swearing to the Queen is somewhat singular."

Whether this letter was published to expose the lady, or the bishop, or both, or what other views the compilers of that work had in publishing it, is not in my power to determine: [Page 454: deter- mine] but this I will venture to say in Mrs. Astell's behalf, that I believe those who have perused her book of the Christian Religion, and read with attention what she has there wrote upon Decency and Decorum (which was printed and published long before she had this conversation with the bishop) will not very easily fall into his way of thinking; they will soon find that she understood the theory, as well as himself, if we may judge from his writings, and that she was no less skilled in the practick part fully appears from her famous controversy with Dr. D'Avenant; where one cannot without great pleasure observe, what an exact mistress she was, of all that Decency and Decorum, which in her book of the Christian Religion, she has taken occasion to explain and recommend. In short, I never could yet learn, from any other hand, that she was not as unexceptionable in her expressions, as a writer, as she was in her manners, as a christian.

But to return; more of these seditious libels coming to her hands, particularly that called Short Ways—. She immediately returned an apposite answer intitled, A Fair Way with the Dissenters and their Patrons. Not Writ by Mr. L—y, or any other Furious Jacobite, whether Clergyman or Layman; but by a very Moderate Person and Dutiful Subject to the Queen, London, 1704, 4to. While this treatise was in the press, Dr. D'Avenant came out with a new edition of his Moderation still a Vertue, &c. Wherepon she immediately return'd a very satisfactory answer to it, which was added by way of postscript to this book. This tract (which is now become exceeding scarce) should go along with, and always attend Moderation truly stated, as a proper appendix to that admirable treatise.

To correct the crude opinions and notions of some; and to refute the corrupt principles and dangerous doctrines of other [Page 455: o- ther] writers, she drew up a judicious performance, which was addressed by way of letter to a great lady with this title, The Christian Religion as Professed by a Daughter of the Church of England, &c. London, 1705, 8vo.

I heartily wish this book was in every hand (especially the younger part of the world) being fully perswaded that it would have a considerable influence over the generality of mankind, in checking and repressing the many reigning vices of this age, which are now so powerfully, and fatally prevailing among us. The deformities of vice being here exhibited in such a terrible form: and the charms of virtue represented in such an amiable, and captivating manner, as would implant in the mind such pure seeds of religion and virtue, as could hardly ever be eradicated. Here the diligent and attentive reader may find all the duties of a christian painted in such true and lively colours, as will at once both convince his reason, and forcibly gain his affections: and she did not prescribe religious rules, and duties to others, which she did not practice herself: her words and actions always comporting with, and illustrating each other. But I will dwell no longer on this performance, than to subjoin to what I have said of it, a character thereof, given me by my abovementioned worthy friend; who being an excellent judge of performances of this kind, it will be infinitely preferable to any thing I can say; and cannot fail of being highly acceptable to the unprejudiced reader.

"I cannot (says he) but esteem Mrs. Astell's account of her religion as an excellent treatise; it is written with that strength, perspicuity, and smoothness, with such elegance of diction, such refined judgment, such an uncommon spirit of true christianity, and orthodoxy, and supported with such clear, solid, full, and convincing arguments, that I have scarcely ever read a book with greater delight and satisfaction. In my opinion, [Page 456] the learned authoress hath with great dexterity and success retorted Mr. Locke's metaphysical artillery against himself, confuted his whimsical Idea of Thinking matter, and given him a genteel foil. She has fairly shewn the imperfections and erroneous tenets contained in those two tracts, The Reasonableness of Christianity and The Ladies Religion: and has convinced me, that the authors had no honest design in writing either of them, since, notwithstanding those specious titles they have given them, instead of promoting christianity, they tend rather to undermine and subvert the true faith, and are derogatory to the honour of our Saviour. But in my judgment, she has justly, and handsomely, disclosed and defeated their false and fallacious reasonings, and defended the cause of the primitive faith, with a zeal becoming a true professor of it."

At the end of this book she has made some remarks on an article in Dr. Tillotson's Sermons, which are taken notice of by an eminent divine 5 in the following manner. Speaking of Bishop Tillotson's Sermons, he says, "There is one or two points of doctrine particularly that of Hell-Torments, justly exceptionable;" and adds in a note "a second point I had in view, concerns the Satisfaction, which is modestly and judiciously examined by an ingenious lady, in a very good book intitled, The Religion of a Church of England Woman, p. 339, &c."

About this time also, she wrote and published a book entitled, An Impartial Enquiry into the Causes of Rebellion, and Civil War in this Kingdom. In an Examination of Dr. Kennet's Sermon, January the 30th, 1703-4. And Vindication of the Royal Martyr, London, 1704, 4to. My utmost diligence hitherto, could never procure me a sight of this [Page 457] book; so that at present I can give no account concerning it, more than its title: tho' I do not doubt but the same life and spirit, and the same convincing reasons and solidity of judgment appears in it, as in her other treatises.

As much of the former part of her life had been spent in writing for the propagating and improvement of learning, religion and virtue; so the remaining part of it was chiefly employed in the practise of those religious duties, which she had so earnestly and pathetically recommended to others; and in which perhaps no one was ever more sincere and devout. I have been told that for several years before her death, she constantly walked from Chelsey to St. Martin's church every Sunday, never regarding the inclemency or unseasonableness of the weather, purely to hear a celebrated preacher, whom she much admired for his excellent practical divinity.

As her notions and sentiments of religion, piety, charity, humility, friendship, and all the other graces which adorn the good christian, were most refined, and sublime; so she possessed those rare and excellent virtues, in a degree as would have made her admired and distinguished in an age less degenerate and profane. And altho' from the very flower of her age, she lived and conversed with the Beau Monde, amidst all the gaiety, pomp, and pageantry of the great city; yet she well knew how to resist and shun those infatuating snares; and wisely guarded against all these temptations and evils; and in the midst of it, led a holy, pure, and even angelical life. So that what the Reverend Mr. Samuel Willis once said of Lady Mary Hastings, is most applicable to this truly pious gentlewoman. To know GOD, and to be like him, was her first and great endeavour. She lived always in prospect of Heaven, and thither did her devout spirit ever aspire. This made those temptations, which prevail so fatally upon others, [Page 458] prove only molestations to her. This world (as it was to Monica 6 discoursing of Heaven with her holy Son) was vile and despicable in her eye, whose contemplations and longings were directed to things eternal. She wisely concluded, that a meek and quiet spirit, a true devotion, and severe virtue, were more excellent acquisitions, and more lovely ornaments, than any of the gaudy vanities, wherewith vulgar and narrow fouls are so unreasonably transported. Nor did she only approve the things that are excellent, but she practised them also to such a degree, that in her primitive christianity was revived, and she lived as those first christians did, and as we should.

This severe strictness of holy discipline, was not in the least attended, with sourness or moroseness of temper; her mind being generally calm and serene; and her deportment and conversation was highly entertaining, and innocently facetious. She would say, The good Christian only has reason, and he always ought, to be chearful. And that Dejected looks, and Melancholy Airs were very unseemly in a Christian. But of this, she has treated at large in her book of The Christian Religion.

But tho' she was easy and affable to others, to herself she was sometimes perhaps over severe. In abstinence few or none ever surpassed her; for she would live like a Hermit, for a considerable time together, upon a crust of bread and water with a little small beer. And at the time of her highest living, (when she was at home) she very rarely eat any dinner 'till night and then it was by the strictest rules of temperance. She would say, Abstinence was her best Physick. And would frequently observe, that those who indulged themselves in Eating and Drinking, could not be so well disposed or [Page 459] prepared either for study, or the regular and Devout Service of their Creator.

She seemed to enjoy an uninterrupted state of health 'till a few years before her death, when, having one of her breasts cut off, it so much impaired her constitution, that she did not long survive it. This was occasioned by a cancer, which she had concealed from the world in such a manner, that even few of her most intimate acquaintance knew any thing at all of the matter. She dressed and managed it herself, 'till she plainly perceived there was an absolute necessity for its being cut off: and then, with the most intrepid resolution and courage, she went to the Reverend Mr. Johnson, a gentleman very eminent for his skill in surgery (with only one person to attend her) entreating him to take it off in the most private manner imaginable: and would hardly allow him to have persons whom necessity required to be at the operation. She seemed so regardless of the sufferings or pain she was to undergo, that she refused to have her hands held, and did not discover the least timidity, or impatience, but went thro' the operation without the least struggling or resistance; or even so much as giving a groan or a sigh: and shewed the like patience and resignation throughout the whole cure, which that gentleman, to his lasting credit and honour, soon performed. Perhaps this might be the reason which induced her excellent friend the Lady Elizabeth Hastings to make use of him upon the same sad occasion. This great lady's friendship to Mrs. Astell continued inviolable to the last date of her life: and well knowing that she did not abound in riches, her generosity to her was such, that she has given her fourscore guineas at one time. I mention this the rather, in order to shew that this great and good lady's unlimited generosity, in some, and perhaps in many influences, exceeded the bounds of the Reverend Mr. Thomas Barnard's [Page 460] knowledge, tho' undoubtedly he took all the pains he could to inform himself of every circumstance which might serve to adorn that illustrious character. 7

Soon after this, her health and strength declined apace, and at length by a gradual decay of nature, being confined to her bed, and finding the time of her dissolution draw nigh, she ordered her coffin and shrowd to be made, and brought to her bed-side, and there to remain in her view, as a constant memento to her of her approaching fate, and that her mind might not deviate or stray one moment from GOD, it's most proper object. Her thoughts were now so entirely fixed upon GOD and eternity, that for some days before her death, she earnestly desired that no company might be permitted to come to her; refusing at that time to see, even her old and dear friend the Lady Catherine Jones, purely because she would not be disturbed in the last moments of her divine contemplations. She departed this life, about the eleventh day of May, in the year 1731. And was buried at Chelsey the 14th day of the same month.

 

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

FOOTNOTES.

[Page 450]

1 The motive, as I have been informed, was her disappointment in a marriage contract with an eminent clergyman.

[Page 452]

2 Sufferings of the Clergy, part 2d. p. 177. And the pref. p. 26.

3 See Mr. Hearne's pref. to the 7th Volume of Leland's Itinerary, p. 13.

4 Numismata or a Discourse of Medals p. 265.

[Page 456]

5 Vid. Dr. Waterland's Advice to a young Student, &c. 3d Edition, p. 24.

[Page 458]

6 See his Confess. Lib. 9. c. 10.

[Page 460]

7 In a book entitled, An Historical character relating to the holy and exemplary Life of the Right Honourable the Lady Elizabeth Hastings, &c. by Thomas Barnard M. A. Master of the Free-School in Leeds. Printed at Leeds, 1742.

8 The same thing is related of St. Austin, whose friends, tho' undoubtedly of the same religious character, were not in his last illness permitted to see him.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

The text is reproduced as published in 1752, without any corrections. Older typestyles have been modernized (e.g. long s ſ is transcribed as s) but spellings have been left as they originally appeared. Extended sections in quotation marks have been set off within blockquotes.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom