Mary Astell, Some Reflections upon Marriage (ed. prin. 1700)

Genre: an essay.

Form: prose.

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" (2422) 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 long-term relationship.

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:

  1. 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?  Click here for some Library resources on English women's lives in the period we are surveying (roughly 1300-1700).
  2. 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.  Literary 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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
  7. 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?
  8. 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 literature?
  9. Other sites which offer scholarly editions of previously unpublished works by women who wrote during the Renaissance, Restoration, and 18th century include Anniina Jokinen's 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 here.
  10.         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.

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