Astell, Courtship, and Marriage in English 211: Possible Final Paper Topics

       Mary Astell's Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700) represents another multi-issue milestone in our survey of English literature from its earliest oral-formulaic performances for aristocratic households (Beowulf, "Battle of Maldon," "Wife's Lament" and "Wanderer") to the modern era's printed works for a mass-literate population.  As Amelia Lanyer did before her, Astell writes as a woman, to women readers, indicating a degree of "market segmentation" in the creation and sale of printed literature.  It also is a short, prose pamphlet, on a topic made sensational by a scandalous nobleman's divorce of his wife.  In short, like Behn's novel, it is "news, and of interest to use both for its literary style (ornate, complex, periodic sentences emphasizing "wit" [unexpectedly just and wise analytic comparisons]) and for its historical significance in the history of courtship and marriage.  This essay connects issues that run, like the thunderstorms in that space shuttle video, throughout the course.  The issue arises first in Wealtheow's role as "peace weaver" and the only female Beowulf encounters in Hrothgar's mead hall and in "Wife's Lament," and it extends to the Alison's portrayal in "Miller's Tale" and "Wife of Bath's Prelude," to the "Boke of Margery Kempe," to the Utopians' marriages, to Petrarch's "Una candida cerva" and Wyatt's "Whoso list to hunt" and Spenser's Sonnet 67 (the "dear" captured "with her own will beguiled"), to Lear's disastrously married daughters, to Amelia Lanyer's use of Pilate's wife to defend Eve in Genesis, to Anne Donne's and Imoinda's total and fatal loves in doomed marriages in Donne's and Behn's story about the husbands who led them into this peril.  It's not over yet, of course.  We will see again Astell's view of C17 marriage-for-love as a trap for unwary, uneducated women in Congreve's The Way of the World, and in the Cavalier poets' lyrics, a view of newfangled "affective courtship" as a game played by males against females in which the former almost always have the superior hand.  Why, even today, does "to score" mean male sexual conquest? 

        If all of this sounds "feminist," you're right.  It's also Marxist, New Historicist, and Semiotic.  Of those critical methods, however, only "feminist" is among the words Time Magazine is currently asking its readers to consider banning.  Thanks to the diligent, anti-feminst trolls at 4chan, "feminist" is currently leading the banned word list.