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Mary Astell’s Work Toward a New Edition of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II

From: Studies in Bibliography
Volume 57, 2005-2006
pp. 197-232 | 10.1353/sib.0.0003

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Mary Astell (1666–1731) is probably best known today as the author of the ubiquitously anthologized Some Reflections Upon Marriage (1700), a cunning diatribe against the hypocritical marriage practices of early-eighteenth-century England that well deserves its current reputation as one of the foundational texts of Western feminism. Reflections was also popular in its day, reaching a fourth edition in England in 1730 when William Parker, who had taken over the stock of Astell’s longtime bookseller Richard Wilkin, agreed “to republish her most popular books” (Perry 315). Specifically, along with Reflections, Parker issued a “new” third edition of The Christian Religion, As Profess’d by a Daughter of the Church of England (first edition 1705; second edition 1717), the pinnacle of Astell’s sophisticated philosophical and theological thought, while in the same year Edmund Parker (no evident relationship to William) released a third edition of Astell’s correspondence with Neoplatonist John Norris of Bemerton (1656–1711), Letters Concerning the Love of God (first edition 1695; second edition 1705).1 The popularity of Astell’s first published work, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694), had burned brightly, if swiftly, as well; it reached its fourth and final edition in 1701, coupled with the one significant work penned by Astell that never saw a subsequent edition, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II (1697). Given the alacrity with which Wilkin combined the two works—they first were published together in 1697, the same year that Part II had earlier been issued seriatim—it would appear that Part II simply did not sell well, and that the remainders of the original sheets made their way into the combined editions of 1697 and 1701. This would explain why, even in the combined edition of 1701, which contains the fourth and final revision of Part I, the title page to Part II is unchanged—and why Patricia Springborg found no discrepancies between this 1701 issue of Part II and the original printing of 1697 in her modern edition of Parts I and II.2

Perhaps Astell had misjudged her audience. In Part I (hereafter abbreviated SPI) she had outlined in inspired terms her “serious proposal” to construct exclusively female religious academies wherein women could advance their minds and spirits secluded from a male-dominated culture that encouraged them, she charged, to remain addle-brained and pretty. Although her detractors won the day by smearing the plan as closet Catholicism, Astell’s argument, an admixture of wide-eyed idealism and urgent practicality, caught on with a reading public comprising ever more women, and would continue for decades to appeal to a broad range of thinkers interested in the problems of (in particular) young women, among them, to name a significant few, Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson.3Part II (hereafter abbreviated SPII), written largely in response to the failure of SPI to elicit requisite financial backing, attempted to provide in print what Astell had been unable to secure in bricks and mortar. Ruth Perry has aptly characterized SPII as “a training manual for Norris’s brand of Christian Platonism,” a “kind of ‘how-to-do-it’ manual to be used at home” by women interested in self-education (83). Its erudite distillation of the philosophical principles of Descartes and those who had variously taken up his mantle (Antoine Arnauld, Pierre Malebranche, Norris, and, in small measure, John Locke) is probably more true to Astell’s general tendencies as a thinker and writer than SPI—Norris, it should be noted, was at first shocked to learn that his incisive interlocutor in Letters was a woman, while Francis Atterbury, bishop of Rochester, admitted to a friend, “I dread to engage her”4—but it was evidently unappealing to readers who had been charmed with the romantic patina of Astell’s initial proposal.5 Many women were likely enamored more with the idea of a safe-haven than with Astell’s decidedly ambitious conception of a proper curriculum.

However much her audience may have resisted SPII, Astell, it turns out, did not abandon it. Her work toward a second edition exists in the pastedowns, free endpapers, and margins of her personal copy, now housed in...



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