Feminist, radical thinker and champion of girls’ education Mary Astell was born into a landless gentry family in Newcastle in 1666. As was common at the time, she received no formal education. But after the death of her father, when she was 12 years-old, she was tutored by her uncle and developed an interest in theology and political philosophy. She became an avid writer of poetry and letters.
Mary educated herself to a remarkable degree at a time when it was not uncommon for women to be unable to read or write, and when there were few learned women. At 21, eschewing marriage and not wanting to be a burden on her family, she travelled to London to make a new life for herself. The journey took her two weeks by stagecoach at considerable expense.
She settled in Chelsea, where she would spend the best part of her life. At that time, Chelsea was a pleasant and thriving market town on the cusp of change. Farmland since Saxon times, it had attracted nobility and court officials who wanted country houses near Westminster, which was easily accessible by boat along the river.
In 1524 Sir Thomas More moved there, buying up land and property to create an estate worthy of his standing and power as Henry VIII’s Chancellor. After his execution, More’s estate was forfeited to Henry, who acquired other property close by, though there is little evidence he spent much time there.
Chelsea’s reputation for “sweet airs” and as a convenient spot for convalescence encouraged more building. In 1682 Charles II founded the Royal Hospital to provide support and house veterans from Britain’s many foreign wars. Designed by Christopher Wren with clean regular lines and perfect proportionality, it sits on a 66-acre site and still dominates the area. Alongside the well-to-do, Chelsea also had a growing population of working people: farmers, craftsmen and brewers all providing food and services to the local houses.
The area’s wealth and respectability suited Mary’s conservative attitudes and background, and with some of the great houses having been converted into lodgings she was able to find cheaper accommodation there than closer to the centre.
Her first year was miserable, however, as her resources ebbed away and family, friends and relatives were unwilling or unable to help. In desperation she wrote, as many others did, to Archbishop Sancroft at Lambeth Palace seeking charity and assistance. He seems to have recognised her intelligence and determination, and supported her desire to write by making a connection for her with a publisher.
Mary’s first book, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694), caused a huge stir across literary London with its insistence on a woman’s right to a life of the mind. She argued that women were the intellectual equal of men and required access to education so that they could make their own decisions and take control of their lives.
The book was both controversial and hugely popular. By 1701 it had been through five editions. Mary developed her thinking further in Some Reflections Upon Marriage, published in 1700. In it she challenged the tyranny of marriage without consent and all that it meant in terms of male control and the natural assumption that such was a woman’s vocation, “for what poor woman is ever taught that she should have a higher design than to get her a husband?”
Mary was passionate and ambitious about creating a better world for all of her sex. She was supported by a number of aristocratic, independent women who admired her learning and wit. Together they raised funds to support the creation of a school for the daughters of the war pensioners based at the Royal Hospital. Mary became the school’s first headmistress.
At this time she lived close to the Apothecary’s Garden, now known as the Chelsea Physic Garden, which had been opened in 1673 for the cultivation and study of exotic plants brought by botanists from across the world. Gentlemen farmers would buy cuttings or plants from the gardens to try in their own grounds.
Mary led an austere life. She lived frugally, attended church daily and fasted regularly. She preferred the pleasures of reading and meditation to those of the theatre and ballrooms. In her fifties she suffered long bouts of illness and eventually underwent a mastectomy, hoping that would ease her pain and prolong her life, but she did not survive for long after the excruciating operation.
Her intellectual prowess was recognised and celebrated at the time, but she soon faded into obscurity. In her definitive biography, Ruth Perry recreates Mary’s world for a contemporary audience. She notes that Mary began the modern dialogue in print about the power relations between the sexes and was one of the first woman to live alone publicly without forfeiting her respectability.
A stone plaque in Chelsea Old Church, where she worshipped, commemorates her alongside three other Chelsea women “distinguished by their learning and piety”, but there is no blue plaque to celebrate her life. None of the houses she lived in are extant. There is evidence she resided in Swan Walk, but quite where remains unclear. There are plenty of memorials of men along the Embankment. Perhaps it is time Mary Astell joined them.
Image: South front of Royal Hospital in Chelsea in the 1750s, painted by Thomas Bowles, courtesy of the Royal Hospital.
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