Ahead of her time

Ahead of her time

Magdalene College Cambridge has discovered a treasure trove of women’s intellectual history

Frontispiece from Jacques du Bosc's The Excellent Woman (1692). Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a CC license

Frontispiece from Jacques du Bosc's The Excellent Woman (1692). Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a CC license

Frontispiece from Jacques du Bosc's The Excellent Woman (1692). Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a CC license

The astonishing collection comprises 47 books and pamphlets owned and annotated by the philosopher Mary Astell (1666–1731), viewed by many as “the first English feminist”.

Astell’s hand-written notes reveal, for the first time, that she engaged with complex natural philosophy including the ideas of René Descartes.

‘Descartes Principles are clear & his Reasons consequential’

‘Phenomenon of comets w[hi]ch appear like hoses, or with Beards or Tails according to differ[ing] Refractions’

‘Because ye Star sending out light from itself has ye greater force to continue its Rays in a right line, w[hi]ch makes it suffer ye less Refraction tho[ugh] ye diversity of ye medium be ye same.’

The Old Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge. Courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College Cambridge

The Old Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge. Courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College Cambridge

The Old Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge. Courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College Cambridge

These are just some of the remarkable notes made by Mary Astell in her 1681 copy of Les Principes de la Philosophie, which set out René Descartes’ principles of nature, or laws of physics.

In the early eighteenth century, only a minority of British women could read in English, let alone in French. But even more unusual is the extent of Astell’s scientific understanding which this precious collection makes clear. Catherine Sutherland, Deputy Librarian at Magdalene, who made the discovery says:

“Women’s book collections from this period are so rare but it’s even more amazing to find one being used to advance a woman’s career as a writer. Magdalene’s collection represents the nucleus of Astell’s library, including the books that influenced her most.”

Catherine Sutherland with the Mary Astell Collection in the Old Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge

Catherine Sutherland with the Mary Astell Collection in the Old Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge

Catherine Sutherland with the Mary Astell Collection in the Old Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge

Sutherland found the collection during a recent provenance survey of Magdalene’s Old Library holdings, comprising around 8,500 books and manuscripts amassed by the college since its formation as a Benedictine hostel in 1428. Starting with books which presented the most explicit evidence of Astell’s ownership, Sutherland pieced together clues from bindings and citations in Astell’s published writings.

Sutherland says: “The old library is open to the public for an exhibition one morning a month and visitors pass through the room where Astell’s books live. But usually, access is by appointment only for visiting scholars and they mostly pre-order what they want to look at. So Astell’s collection has been hiding in plain sight really.”

Most scholarly interest in Astell has focussed on her philosophical thought and proto-feminism.  Relatively little has been written about her book ownership because only a few survivors from her library were known about. These can be found at the British Library and the Northamptonshire Record Office.

“This is a major discovery”, says Mark Goldie, Emeritus Professor of Intellectual History at Cambridge. “As a published woman, engaging in polemic, Astell was rare in her time, brave too. Her books reveal a great deal: her reading, her responses, her political and religious commitments, her fluency in French, her grasp of the new philosophy of Descartes, and her engagement with science.”

Librarian Catherine Sutherland has unlocked a bibliographic treasure trove; scholars will now be eager to drill down into Astell’s marginalia.
Professor Mark Goldie

Ruth Perry, Professor of Literature at MIT and biographer of Mary Astell, said: “This marvellous discovery will help scholars refine their ideas about this fascinating intellectual’s positions on a number of philosophical, religious and political issues.”

The Old Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge

The Old Library. Courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College Cambridge

The Old Library. Courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College Cambridge

Who was Mary Astell?

Born into a prosperous Newcastle coal merchant family, Astell’s education went further than most young women of her social standing could expect. Her Cambridge-educated uncle Ralph, a published poet and intellectual, became her educator and immersed Mary in the teachings of the Cambridge Platonists, a group of academics who countered the rise of low-church religious fervour and Hobbesian thought with the philosophy of Plato.

Mary moved to London following her father’s death around the time of the ‘Glorious Revolution’. She successfully petitioned the Archbishop of Canterbury to finance her early writing career explaining that her poverty had forced her to pawn all of her clothes. However, the collection proves that she wasn’t so desperate as to give up all of her books – she noted when they were bought.

When Astell challenged the philosopher and clergyman John Norris on his published claims, he was so impressed with her arguments and lively writing style that he sought permission to publish their correspondence. In the meantime, Astell published A Serious Proposal to the Ladies in 1694, her argument for the establishing communities of learning for women. Letters Concerning the Love of God appeared a year later, and the two books established her as a prominent thinker and writer. Living in Chelsea, Astell befriended aristocratic women such as Lady Elizabeth Hastings and Lady Catherine Jones, who also acted as patrons for her writing.

Of the 47 items in the collection, 40 are books and 7 are pamphlets, mostly philosophical, theological, and political works. Thanks to Astell’s note-making, we know that she bought at least 10 of the book titles (mostly second-hand) and that another 13 were gifts or bequests. All of the titles date from the mid-seventeenth to early eighteenth centuries and closely correlate with Astell’s academic interests and the trajectory of her writing career. Twenty-eight of the items are in English, eighteen in French and one in Latin.

Sutherland says: “I love the inscriptions in the books which were gifted to Astell. These helped me find out more about her circle of friends and colleagues, and build up a picture of how she exchanged ideas with both male academics and like-minded women.”

Inscription in Astell's copy of Arthur Capel, Excellent Contemplations, Divine and Moral, reads: 'Given to M. Astell by her Grace the Duchess Dowager of Beaufort Daughter to this incomparable Lord. Nov 21st 1712'

Inscription in Astell's copy of Arthur Capel, Excellent Contemplations, Divine and Moral, reads: 'Given to M. Astell by her Grace the Duchess Dowager of Beaufort Daughter to this incomparable Lord. Nov 21st 1712'. Image courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College Cambridge

Inscription in Astell's copy of Arthur Capel, Excellent Contemplations, Divine and Moral, reads: 'Given to M. Astell by her Grace the Duchess Dowager of Beaufort Daughter to this incomparable Lord. Nov 21st 1712'. Image courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College Cambridge

Making her mark

Astell was an extensive annotator of her books, in their margins, endpapers and pastedowns. She used pen and pencil to make additions, deletions and substitutions but also wrote more interpretive comments in the larger blank spaces. She composed indices for her personal reference and made corrections to the printed text using errata slips.

Sutherland says: “Most of her books were read and thoroughly engaged with, especially those which informed her own work to a significant degree.”

Here Mary Astell translates from French to English Descartes' lessons on the 'Kindling of Fire'.

Next, Astell annotates a diagram of the structure of the Earth in Descartes' Les Principes de la Philosophie

Mary Astell marginalia in her 1681 copy of Descartes' Les Principes de la Philosophie
Mary Astell marginalia in her 1681 copy of Descartes' Les Principes de la Philosophie

Descartes

Astell paid ten shillings for Descartes’ Les Principes de la Philosophie in 1695, the highest price she recorded and this book is the most heavily annotated in the collection. There are several extra blank pages bound into the volume to make space for her observations.

The title page of Mary Astell's 1681 copy of Descartes' Les Principes de la Philosophie

The title page of Mary Astell's 1681 copy of Descartes' Les Principes de la Philosophie. Image courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College Cambridge

The title page of Mary Astell's 1681 copy of Descartes' Les Principes de la Philosophie. Image courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College Cambridge

Astell came to Descartes via the writing of Nicolas Malebranche and the two French philosophers would become the greatest influences on her work. Astell seems to have undertaken an intense period of study in French during her correspondence with John Norris, who recommended she read their work.

Mary Astell's copy of Descartes' Les Principes de la Philosophie in the Old Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge

Mary Astell's copy of Descartes' Les Principes de la Philosophie in the Old Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge

Mary Astell's copy of Descartes' Les Principes de la Philosophie in the Old Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge

The notes in Astell’s copy of Descartes’ Les Principes are a mixture of brief translations into English in the margins, her own responses to the text, cross-references to other works and copied and translated extracts from Baillet’s biography of Descartes to complement the printed text for her own reference.

The detailed notes relating to maths and science are particularly striking, and there are specific works which Astell refers to in her notes, such as Borellus’ De vi Percussionis, et Motionibus Naturalibus a Gravitate Pendentibus (1686) and issues of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions.

Astell studied astronomy with John Flamsteed between 1697 and 1698, and her notes in Les Principes demonstrate that she had already attained a high level of understanding in the sciences prior to her formal studies with the Astronomer Royal. Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge, says:

“Astell’s annotations demonstrate that she had read and thought carefully about much of what Descartes had written, giving careful explanations in English of some of his ideas. She was not frightened of disagreeing with him either, with several examples of ‘false’ being written in the marginalia regarding his analysis of the laws of motion.

“Astell may not have had access to Isaac Newton’s Principia which gave more precise and quantitative laws. Newton’s Laws have stood the test of time unlike some propounded by Descartes, including the very ones Astell annotated with ‘false’.”

“Looking at Astell’s notes, one can envisage a student, of any gender in any century, reading a text book and jotting down in their own words the key arguments being put forward, or querying the parts they could either not follow or with which they disagreed.

As a modern scientist, it is a key moment in a researcher’s development when they are first willing to say ‘I don’t believe this’. It is intriguing that she had that confidence, given her circumstances.
Professor Dame Athene Donald

“Although she didn’t publish scientific works, her belief in education for girls and women – about which she did write – certainly would have allowed for the possibility of women tackling these subjects. In this she was way ahead of her time.

“For her, as a staunch believer (unlike Newton), she would have seen understanding the motion of celestial objects or the nature of light as part of the wonders of God’s way and therefore worthy of study for both men and women.”

Professor Mark Goldie says: “Like all her generation, she strongly believed that, as she wrote, ‘they who would contemplate or explain the works of nature ought to have lofty thoughts of God’, for in doing so they are examining the Divine Design.”

Mary Astell marginalia in her 1681 copy of Descartes' Les Principes de la Philosophie
Mary Astell's notes on Democritus and Descartes in her 1681 copy of Descartes' Les Principes de la Philosophie
Mary Astell marginalia concerning comets in her 1681 copy of Descartes' Les Principes de la Philosophie
Mary Astell marginalia concerning starlight in her 1681 copy of Descartes' Les Principes de la Philosophie

Here, Mary Astell's notes in Descartes' Les Principes concern magnetism

Professor Mark Goldie: “Astell devotes a page of commentary to comparing Descartes’ theories with those of the Greek atomist philosopher Democritus. It is striking that she treats Democritus calmly as a theorist of nature, whereas most of her contemporaries would have worked hard to expose and deplore the wickedness of his godless materialism. So absolute is her faith in Descartes’ dualism that the separate realm of mind and spirit is not threatened by theories of natural causation for the material world. This liberates her to be curious about natural causes. ‘How the motion of the heart is made’; ‘How the motion of the muscles is made’, are among her queries.”

Here, Astell's note in Descartes' Les Principes reads: 'The way of a Comet from one Vortex to another'

Here, Astell’s note in Descartes reads: ‘(viz) Because ye Star sending out light from itself has ye greater force to continue its Rays in a right line, w[hi]ch makes it suffer ye less Refraction tho[ugh] ye diversity of ye medium be ye same.’

How did Magdalene come to own Astell’s books?

This remains something of a mystery but Sutherland has a convincing theory.

In the 1740s, it was rumoured that Astell left an extensive library to ‘Magdalen College’ on her death and in the draft manuscript of Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain George Ballard stated that ‘She gave her library, which was a pretty large one to Magdalene College in Oxford’. Crucially, ‘in Oxford’ has been deleted, presumably because Ballard couldn’t find any evidence of Astell’s books at his own college: Magdalen, Oxford. 

This mix-up is understandable since it was only in the nineteenth century that the final ‘e’ was added to the Cambridge college to better differentiate between the two, and any references to Magdalen prior to this without the suffix ‘Oxon’ or ‘Cant’ to guide the reader could refer to either college. 

While Ballard seems to have realised his mistake, Astell’s bequest was cut from the published version of his book, which helps to explain why the collection has been overlooked for nearly 300 years. Intriguingly, however, Ballard’s note suggests that Astell made a deliberate decision to leave her library to the Cambridge college. Two books actually bear the inscription ‘The gift of Mrs Astell to Magdalene College’ but these are in the hand of someone else associated with the College.

“Unfortunately, there is no documentary evidence of Astell’s books arriving at Magdalene”, Sutherland explains. “The only suggestion of a personal link between Astell and the college is that Daniel Waterland, theologian and Master between 1713 and 1740, cited Astell’s The Christian Religion, as Profess’d by a Daughter of the Church of England in his Advice to a Young Student. He called Astell an ‘ingenious lady’ and shared similar interests including Malebranche, Calamy and charity schools.”

Daniel Waterland (1683 – 1740). Courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College Cambridge

Daniel Waterland (1683 – 1740). Courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College Cambridge

Daniel Waterland (1683 – 1740). Courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College Cambridge

During Astell’s later life, Magdalene was in a period of active book collecting. Waterland set up the Pepys Library at Magdalene when it arrived in 1724 and Astell may have been aware of this. The event was announced in newspapers, and Astell and Pepys had mutual acquaintances. It seems likely that Waterland took an interest in brokering donations of books to the college, especially from someone like Astell.

Interestingly Magdalene owns many more books authored by Astell than any other Cambridge College, and these may have been purchased by an admiring Waterland. The fact that the collection does not include works by the classical authors Astell read suggest that Waterland was able to select material – Magdalene already had plenty of copies of Homer, Thucydides and Virgil.

Catherine Sutherland with Mary Astell's copy of Descartes' Les Principes de la philosophie

Catherine Sutherland with Mary Astell's copy of Descartes' Les Principes de la philosophie

Catherine Sutherland with Mary Astell's copy of Descartes' Les Principes de la philosophie

Unfinished business

Some of the books in the collection were purchased after Astell published her final work in 1709. It is possible that these books were bought for a future project - Astell intended to work with female friends on a compendium of natural philosophy written for women.

Although Astell made a habit of marking books, there are some books in Magdalene’s Old Library which are both rarities and highly relevant to Astell’s fields of interest so there may be more discoveries to come.

Professor Ruth Perry says: “The lacunae in our knowledge of women’s thinking in the early modern period makes this find a bonanza for historians and philosophers. Students of feminist history especially will be grateful to Catherine Sutherland and Magdalene College, for recognizing this treasure and for carefully and methodically authenticating and documenting it.”

Find out more

C. Sutherland ‘Books owned by Mary Astell in the Old Library of Magdalene College Cambridge’ will be published in The Library in 2022.

R. Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist (Chicago, 1986).

Mary Astell was the subject of an ‘In Our Time’ discussion on BBC Radio 4 in November 2020.

Published 8th March 2021
Words:
Tom Almeroth-Williams
Photography:
Adam Page and Maciej Pawlikowski

Catherine Sutherland with the Mary Astell Collection in the Old Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge

Catherine Sutherland with the Mary Astell Collection in the Old Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge

Catherine Sutherland with the Mary Astell Collection in the Old Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge