Mary Astell 1666-1731

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Mary ASTELL 1666-1731

Biographical Note

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, the daughter of Peter Astell, coal merchant, and Mary Astell (née Errington). Mary Astell received an education from her uncle Ralph Astell, a Cambridge graduate, clergyman and published poet. Ralph Astell immersed his neice in the teachings of the Cambridge Platonists, having himself been taught by members of this circle.

In around 1688, likely due to the turmoil of the ‘Glorious Revolution’, Astell moved to Chelsea, London, and successfully petitioned William Sancroft to finance her early writing career. In 1694, her landmark work ‘A Serious Proposal to the Ladies’, her argument for establishing communities of learning for women, was published. During this period she had also formed an intellectual pairing with John Norris, philosopher and clergyman; he published the pair’s correspondence under the title ‘Letters Concerning the Love of God’ in 1695.

Astell was concerned with the education of women and girls, and after her successful career writing about philosophical, theological and political subjects, she established a charity school in Chelsea. The endeavour was financed by her aristocratic circle of female friends, such as Lady Elizabeth Hastings and Lady Catherine Jones. Astell resided with the Lady Catherine Jones during her latter years and died of breast cancer in 1731.


An unusual example of a late seventeenth and early eighteenth century book collection owned by a woman who was a published author of the time. There is evidence of the dispersal of Astell’s library in two principal locations: The Old Library of Magdalene College Cambridge (forty-seven books and pamphlets with evidence of Astell’s previous ownership) and Northamptonshire Record Office. The latter repository’s involvement can be traced back to Astell’s executrix, Elizabeth Hutcheson, who passed some of Astell’s collection to the public library in the parish of King’s Cliffe, Northamptonshire, founded by Hutcheson’s associate William Law. It is most likely that the books at Magdalene were donated by Astell via an association with the master of the college at the time of her death, Daniel Waterland, who was known to be an admirer of her work. There is no extant copy of Astell’s will. Sandon Hall in Stafforshire and the British Library have books which Astell either borrowed or gave as gifts which bear her inscriptions and notes.

Characteristic Markings

Astell regularly inscribed her name (or initials), with the date of acquisition and price paid. She was an extensive annotator of her books, and wrote both in pen and pencil in their margins and on endpapers and pastedowns. Astell sometimes composed indices for her personal reference and made corrections to the printed text by hand using information gathered from the books’ errata slips. Occassionally she inscribed a pseudonymn, ‘Phylia’, instead of her name. She is known to sometimes use the Latin motto ‘nolo virtute relicta invidiam pacare’ on a book’s title page. Astell often purchased books ready-bound and second hand, therefore they do not have a uniform style of binding.