Mary Astell, Some
Reflections upon Marriage (ed.
Genre: an essay.
Characters: "men" and "women" in general, as
Astell represents her C17 understanding of their genders' attributes and beliefs.
Summary: Happy marriages are few, she asserts, because the way
the institution operates in her England, money (income) is the primary qualification for
most of them, with no thought for emotional compatibility, and poverty resulting from a
"love match" renders the other sort miserable. Men who marry for love are
irregular, by definition, especially if they admire their spouses for wit, a term she
criticizes as having fallen into being "bitter and ill-natured raillery"
rather than "true wit," "such a sprightliness of imagination, such a reach
and turn of thought, so properly expressed, as strikes and pleases a judicious taste"
(2422). She dismisses intense passion as unstable and no good grounds for a
Women's lack of choice in marriage especially irritates Astell. Men who flatter
them with praise while seeking their favor make them foolish (cf. Astrophil). Women
who can't find a husband are thought incompetent and no man can imagine himself not worthy
of being any woman's suitor. Learned women are mocked by the world at large,
whereas men not uncommonly waste their time in pursuit of their lusts. Women who
sacrifice themselves to submission to a man are heroic in their self-control and in their
service to God and mankind, but if they thought about it more carefully, they probably
would not do it. Hence, the number of women who marry in haste.
Click here for
some general points of connection between Astell's essay and many works we have
read in the survey so far.
Issues and Research Sources:
- Mary Astell's extended essay on marriage might strike some readers in
211 as an unusual assignment in a "literature survey course." But why is
the essay not considered "literature"? Perhaps this is the result of
students' unhappy experiences writing essays in response to assignments--what
would have happened to our appreciation of sonnets had you been cranking those
out to order, twice a semester for all your literature courses? Take
seriously the prose essay as a form of beautiful writing, especially when it
does not have to serve the clock-watching and page counting aesthetic of
academic prose. Behn's Oroonoko was trying to persuade us of many
things using narrative prose, with tiny essays tucked into it. Astell's
Some Reflections Upon Marriage reverses that pattern, embedding little
glimpses of English marriages and courtships by way of example within the
essay's larger persuasive structure. What kind of social and economic and
emotional world do the married people of Astell's era inhabit? Do not make
the mistake of assuming that marriage has always been the same sort of
institution. Remember the Wife of Bath's "Prologue." The "marriage
debt," with its biblical sanction in Genesis ("Go forth and multiply," God's
first commandment to Creation), occupied a far larger place in the relationship
then than it does in Astell's time. With what aspects of married life does
she mainly concern herself, and how does that suggest marriage has changed?
for some Library resources on English women's lives in the period we are
surveying (roughly 1300-1700).
- Astell will give us some much-needed non-poetic
real-world evidence about how women viewed marriage since Margery Kempe asked
John for a "chaste marriage" to enable her spiritual devotions. It might
be a good idea to consult your own opinions of the institution. Do you
plan to marry and encourage others to do so, admit it's a possibility, think it
unlikely, or oppose it for yourself or even as an institution?
Astell's critique of the institution occurs in late seventeenth-century London,
a place where marriage customs had been changing much to women's advantage for
several decades since the Civil War ended in 1649.
evidence suggests a shift toward "affective courtship" (what Astell calls
"marrying for love") and away from "instrumental" marriage to enhance the family
fortunes, but based on Astell's analysis, both customs appear to have
existed in competition for many decades, perhaps centuries if we take Jane
Austen's novels in evidence. The embrace of modernity which accellerated
its pace during this period may also have tilted the legal system decidedly in
favor of husbands' power over their wives.
See the subtitle of Astell's pamphlet (which the Norton omits!), for some
idea of how badly marriage could turn out for the wives and children.
Divorce was impossible without an
act of the House of Lords and proof in an ecclesiastical court of sexual
misconduct or incompetence.
- Note that Astell's argument combines a report of attitudes that she hears
all London reporting (e.g., "this, you'll say, is more spiritual"
on 2282) and things she originally says in response. Taken all
together, what picture of marriage in the late 17th century does this give
us, and how might it be connected to Milton's views of marriage in the Adam
and Eve sections of Paradise Lost?
- Unlike Hutchinson or Halkett, but like Amelia Lanyer of two generations
before her, Astell publishes what she writes, but not under her own name.
Her choice of pseudonym, "A Lover of Her Sex," reveals what we would now
probably call her "gender" and her political stance, but what is missing
from this authorial persona and how does this particular kind of "mask"
enable Astell to function as a personal essayist in a literary culture
almost entirely dominated by men? What
advantages and disadvantages do these women probably encounter when entering
into this previously all male world of published literature? Do you
see signs of her intended audience's probable responses already incorporated
into her prose? Why would it be unlikely for a woman like Lanyer or
Astell to write an epic? (Remember Aphra Behn--she writes
plays for a living under her own name, and publishes an autobiographical travel book of her
adventures in the New World. Things are changing.)
- Astell's education clearly has given her a robust and commanding prose style.
Compare her sentences with those of Dryden when we get to him. How do you see the language changing between 1600 and 1700?
Especially note that her sentences still tend to be long, compound complex
constructions, but try to count how many times you lose your way and must
reread when compared the prose of the Norton introduction, for instance.
Does our training in modern prose constructions predispose us to find Astell
"smoother" than Dryden, or are her sentences deliberately more
challenging in their construction? Think about artful sentences as
deft riddles, yielding their solutions only to some effort on the readers'
part. Comparison with Anglo-Saxon sentences, and with
H.P. Grice's "Maxims" for ordinary
communication, might give you a useful set of measuring sticks for
measuring Astell's sentence style.
- Are any of Astell's assumptions about men perplexing, or even apparently wrong when
applied to men you know? What would you expect to be the case about social
relations in C17 England if she is a perfectly accurate reporter of what she sees?
The Norton's introductory note omits important information about the
specific divorce case which inspired this essay, the Duke and Duchess of
Mazarine. For a short
introduction, see the "ed. prin." note link at the top of the page
and the link to the reprint history of her essay for some evidence of readers'
continuing interest in Astell's argument during her lifetime.
For more scholarly analysis, see Ruth Perry's The Celebrated Mary Astell
(Chicago: U Chicago P, 1986;
305.42 A853Sp). A historically oriented final paper on this topic
might explore Astell's response to the past dialogue on English divorce law,
including John Milton's The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce.
Restor'd to the good of both SEXES, From the bondage of CANON LAW, and other
mistakes, to the true meaning of Scripture in the Law and Gospel compar'd.
(London: I. Booke, 1643), available online from Dartmouth at
- Her critique of wit can be found in Dryden's criticism, also. To go to the Dryden
web page to compare, click here. For a historical discussion of the development of comedy as a
genre, click here. What are the roots of this transformation of "wit" from one of the human
senses (Five Wits in Everyman) to clever speech (Hoby/Castiglioini) to rapid,
irritating, absurd comparisons (see Congreve, "Witwoud")?
Check the OED definitions of wit to track this important word's
transformation, and consult the subplot scenes in Dr. Faustus and in
Kent's Railing upon Oswald for some illustrations of earlier forms of "wit." What happens when the linguistic practices of the underworld become current among the
cultural elite, and where do you see this happening in American culture?
- Astell's essay can help us understand the social condition of her
contemporaries, like Dorothy Osborne, whose elder brother delayed her
courtship by Sir William Temple by proposing a series of suitors he deemed
eligible mainly because of their wealth. To read some of Osborne's
letters to Temple, click here.
The Osborne selections were cut when the Norton editors revised the 6th
edition, but if you would like to read some discussion questions about them,
click here. The Osborne letters were
cut in the same edition which added several women's poems and a drama--what
does this tell you about current critical attitudes toward the
"letter" as a literary form vs. poems and drama? If letters
are a primary genre in which women communicated their thoughts in the period
before women could earn a living as published authors (conventionally,
"B.B." or "Before Behn"), what does the loss of status
of the letter mean for the direction of scholarly research in English
- Other sites which offer scholarly editions of previously unpublished works by women who
wrote during the Renaissance, Restoration, and 18th century include
Luminarium web site on Astell, the Brown University Women Writers Project, the Emory Women Writers Resource
Project at Emory University's Lewis H. Beck Center. The Brown site has an
exceptionally large text base of edited Renaissance women writers, and the Emory site's
strength is its unedited (as in previously unpublished) texts. These are being used
as part of Emory's graduate program to teach editing practices. To see Professor
Sheila Cavanagh's very well-explained set of instructions for how a scholarly edition is
prepared, and a well-equipped set of scholarly tools (paper and online), click
Click here for Sebastian Vrancx' early seventeenth-century painting of street
vendors, including a pamphlet seller of the type whose wares later in the
century might have
included Astell's Some Reflections upon Marriage, Swift's A Modest
Proposal, and Rochester's
handbill advertising the services of Doctor Alexander Bendo. One of my
long-term research projects involves trying to figure out when independent
booksellers with fixed "shops" became the norm, and how their relations with
printers, and later publishers, and authors, evolved. The current trend
toward Internet self-publishing (fan fiction, blogs, Amazon e-books) presents us
with a "devolving" marketplace for literature which flattens out the
intermediary levels of production between authors and readers.
Back to English 211,