Magdalene College Old Library has a collection of books by the 17th century feminist author Mary Astell, in addition to books from Astell’s personal library with her handwritten inscriptions.
Mary Astell (1666-1731) was born into an affluent, upper middle class family of coal merchants in Newcastle. Her uncle, Ralph Astell, had no children of his own and so educated Mary in the philosophy and theology he had studied as a student in Cambridge. After the death of Mary’s father, the family fell on hard times and moved to London. They most likely moved during the ‘Glorious Revolution’ years, when there were several riots in various towns, including in Newcastle.
In London, Astell corresponded with John Norris, one of the ‘Cambridge Platonist’ circle of philosophers and theologians at the University, initially bringing to his attention a contradiction in one of his publications. This led to a wider correspondence between the two on philosophical issues. Norris was so impressed with Astell’s talent as a rhetorician and lively writing style he asked to publish their correspondence. While the publication (under the title ‘Letters Concerning the love of God’) was in the planning stage, Astell published her masterpiece ‘A serious proposal to the Ladies’ in 1694. ‘Letters Concerning the love of God’ appeared a year later, and the two books established her as a prominent thinker and writer.
The two publications came to the particular attention of a circle of female members of the aristocracy, including Lady Catherine Jones, Lady Elizabeth Hastings, and Anne, Countess of Coventry. They all became patrons of Astell and supported her in her writing, as well as donating money towards a charity school for girls in Chelsea founded by Astell.
As the collection of Astell’s books in Magdalene’s Old Library demonstrates, books were given to her as gifts from her circle, in addition to financial support for her writing. An inscription in the Old Library’s 1709 copy of Aelfric’s English-Saxon homily on the birth-day of St. Gregory: anciently used in the English-Saxon church reads: ‘M. Astell Feb. 18. 1709/10 the gift of the Rt. Honble the Lady Elisabeth Hastings’ (see images above). It is highly likely that Lady Elizabeth selected this particular title as a gift for Astell due to its female translator: Elizabeth Elstob, a prolific scholar of Anglo-Saxon and regarded, alongside Astell, as one of the first feminist writers.
The Old Library also possesses a book given to Astell by Mary Somerset, Dowager Duchess of Beaufort and the mother of the aforementioned Anne, Countess of Coventry. The book is a publication of Mary Somerset’s father’s writings, who was a Royalist in the Civil War and executed upon government orders in 1649 (Old Library F.10.38).
We may add another name to this circle of aristocratic scholarly women: Elizabeth Methuen (-1723), who was married to the English ambassador to Portugal. She was a neighbour and close friend of Mary Astell, and left Astell some of her library in her will. The Old Library has a two-volume set of John Harris’ Lexicon Technicum from 1708 (Old Library F.2.28-29), originally from Methuen’s library. Astell’s inscription in volume 1 reads, “M. Astell St. James’s day 1723. Part of ye legacy left me by Mrs E. Methuen who died July 4. 1723”.
Due to the distinctive bindings and handwritten classmarks of Methuen’s books, it is possible to identify other items from her library which have come to the Old Library.The collection is a fascinating insight into female literary circles of the early eighteenth century, but what motivated Astell to give books to Magdalene is a mystery. One possible theory is that there is a connection with Daniel Waterland, who was Master of Magdalene during Mary Astell’s successful writing career through to her death. Waterland was an enthusiast of Astell’s work and recommends her book entitled ‘The Religion of a Church of England-Woman’ in his publication of 1703, ‘Advice to a Young Student’, calling Astell an ‘ingenious lady’. One can see the recommendation at the bottom of the page depicted above.
By Catherine Sutherland
Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections
Apetrei, S. (2010). Women, feminism and religion in early Enlightenment England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Perry, R. (2009), “Astell, Mary (1666–1731), philosopher and promoter of women’s education.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. [Online]. 25 Feb. 2019. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-814.
Prescott, S. (2003). Women, authorship, and literary culture, 1690-1740. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Project Vox. (2015). Mary Astell. [Online]. 25 Feb. 2019. http://projectvox.org/astell-1666-1731/