- Mary Astell: Reason, Gender, Faith
Scholars and students of early modern women’s writing will be delighted that there finally exists a comprehensive collection of essays on Mary Astell (1666–1731), who has become an integral part of our understanding of the politico-religious fabric of late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century England. Mary Astell’s distinctive positioning within the Enlightenment has compelled scholars to put forward strong labels for her and her work. After the feminist recovery of her work in the 1980s claimed [End Page 59] Astell as the “first English feminist,” further examination deemed her the “first feminist literary critic” (Hill 1; Deluna 231). A closer look at Astell’s philosophical arguments finds her also to be the first woman to celebrate and follow Descartes’s methodology in a published work and the first woman to address the inconsistencies in John Locke’s work, leaving scholars seemingly to concur that Mary Astell “was a woman of definite ‘firsts’” (Bryson 40). However, Kolbrener and Michelson’s new collection of essays on Mary Astell seeks to complicate this model of Astell as a lone pioneer fighting on behalf of women, finding that her arguments are actually a well informed accumulation of contemporary ideas presented from her own peculiar positioning on the intellectual landscape of the Long Restoration.
Up to this point in the scholarly exploration of Astell, studies have tended to be individualized according to whichever intellectual trajectory of Astell’s thirty-five year publishing career is of most concern to the critic writing. the exception to this tendency is Ruth Perry’s fascinating biography, the Celebrated Mary Astell (1986). But not since Perry’s biography have we had a work that seeks to explore all the many questions that Astell asked and attempted to answer: questions about theology, history, metaphysics, social policy, ethics, manners, philosophy, law, power on earth, education, gender inequality and, in the words of E. Derek Taylor, co-editor of Astell’s Letters Concerning the Love of God and a contributor to this volume, “Why are human beings so dumb?” (181). Astell’s own writings make an aggressive effort to tackle a full range of problems in a variety of genres, including poetry, epistolary debate, political commentary, historical apology and projection proposal. Given the variety of disciplines and genres of concern to Astell studies, it is no wonder that before now scholars have shied away from the kind of comprehensive approach we finally find in Kolbrener and Michelson’s collection.
That is not to say, however, that the collection in any way simplifies Astell or coerces her work into an artificially cohesive whole. Mark Goldie and Melinda Zook use completely different texts to refocus our understanding of Astell’s perceived enemies of the state by tracing her sustained attack on Dissenters, leading Goldie to refute a feminist label for Astell as “anachronistic hyperbole” (85) and Zook to encourage our reading of “feminist impulses within the political context their writings consistently sought to defend” (100). Eileen O’Neill and Jaqueline Broad identify Astell’s continuities and tensions with the work of Descartes. Sharon Achinstein demonstrates the ways Astell’s feminism interacts with her religious grounding, and Hilda L. Smith opens up a political context for that same women’s advocacy.
As this collection succeeds in creating a nexus through which all the many strands of Astell studies finally come together, it also initiates and invigorates the critical discussion of neglected Astell texts. Astell’s early verses, which were bound in a presentation manuscript and given to Bishop Sancroft as a present for his generosity in her time of need, are toured in this volume by Claire Pickard, and Bart’lemy Fair (1709), a rarely consulted late text, is utilized for both Hannah Smith’s discussion of the reformation of manners and Jacqueline Broad’s discussion of the critique of custom. Mary Astell: Reason, Gender, Faith satisfies a need in Astell studies for a broad consideration of the [End Page 60] multifarious influences on Astell’s work, as well as a frank discussion of both...