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  • “Affecting the Shade”: Attribution, Authorship, and Anonymity in An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex
  • Johanna Devereaux (bio)

In the Mob Quad Library of Merton College, Oxford, is a peculiar and somewhat anomalous octavo volume, bound in brown leather and in a bad state of disrepair. It has been in the library since the 1930s, when the collection of books from the old Warden's Lodgings was given to the main college library. The typed catalogue of this collection includes the following reference to this volume:

Drake (Mrs)

An Essay in Defence of Female Sex

3rd edit.

8o London, 16971

The catalogue is a 170-page list of texts, mainly political, religious, or historical in nature. There is only one other book by a woman: Mrs Frances Shaftoe's Account of Her Being in Sir Theophilus Oglethorpe's Family (1708). An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex, a witty, irreverent polemic on the equality of men's and women's souls, is unique in the collection.

Something else stands out about this particular copy of An Essay. As in the first and second editions of the book, the attribution “Written by a Lady” is printed on the title page. The Merton College copy, however, includes a pencil note next to this line: “Ms. Drake” (sig. A1). Overleaf, a florid handwritten note in faded ink claims, “This is supposed to be written by Mrs Astell. See G. Ballard's Memoirs p. 449” (sig. A1v, see fig. 1). Several pages later, at the end of the dedicatory epistle, which is signed in print, “Your most humble and Devouted [sic] Servant,” a different hand has written in ink: “Mary Astell. See 420 page 71d[?] Brit.Biog.” (sig. A4v, see fig. 2).2 This copy of the anonymous Essay in Defence of the Female Sex has four separate attributions: a typed catalogue attribution to Drake, the same attribution in pencil handwriting on the title page, and two handwritten attributions in ink to Mary Astell inside the volume. How did these conflicting attributions arise? Is it possible to establish who wrote this playful text? And, to quote Foucault on the subject, “What matter who's speaking?”3 [End Page 17]


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Figure 1.
Marginalia in the Merton College Library copy of An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex, 3rd edition (London, 1697). Sig. A1: Pencil, “Ms. Drake.” Reprinted with the kind permission of the Warden and Fellows of Merton College, Oxford University.

[End Page 18]


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Figure 2.
Marginalia in the Merton College Library copy of An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex, 3rd edition (London, 1697). Sig. A4v: Ink, “Mary Astell. See 420 page 71d. Brit. Biog.” Reprinted with the kind permission of the Warden and Fellows of Merton College, Oxford University.

[End Page 19]

The third edition of An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex is an octavo pamphlet of collation 8o: A-B8, 2B8, C-K8, L4.4 The pamphlet is a prowoman polemic aiming “to reduce the Sexes to a Level; and by Arguments to raise Ours to an Equallity [sic] at most with the Men” (sig. A2v).5 The author intends to establish “whether the Time an ingenious Gentleman spends in the Company of Women may justly be said to be misemploy'd or not” (p. 6). Heterosocial company and rational conversation between the sexes are the author's ultimate goal. By relying on Lockean sensationalism and anatomical science to demonstrate the equality of the sexes, by ridiculing certain types of men, by demonstrating that the vices women are accused of indulging are indulged also by men, and by listing the books women may read for their improvement and rational education, the author argues that men may derive both “Profit and Pleasure” from “Conversation” with women (p. 7). Contents of the third edition include a dedicatory epistle to Princess Anne (sig. A2-A4v), an authorial preface (sig. A5-B2v), a commendatory poem to the author signed “James Drake” (sig. B3-B4), a letter to the author signed “JD...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1645
Print ISSN
0732-7730
Pages
pp. 17-37
Launched on MUSE
2008-08-28
Open Access
No
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