University of Virginia Library


The vast majority of Astell's various handwritten comments, notes, and
emendations must have been added sometime during the final 16 years of her
life, i.e., sometime between 1715 and 1731. The first two references on the front
pastedown—to The Ladies Library (1714) and to the deceased Fénelon (d. January
1715)—do not, of course, definitively date the entirety of Astell's various inser-
tions and changes to her text (indeed, as noted above, there are a few possible
in-text exceptions to this time-frame). But inasmuch as the interrelated nature
of the additions suggest a rhetorical strategy on Astell's part—a point I hope to
establish in the course of this introductory essay—a reasonably focused period of
composition may safely be supposed. Astell began and ceased her editorial work
on SPII, I think, for a variety of related reasons that may be traced to a five-year
period, beginning after 1715 and ending around 1720.

It was during these years that Astell became centrally involved in securing the
future of the Chelsea school for girls she had founded in 1709—"Astell's project
from idea to execution," Perry explains (233). The school, which provided a rudi-
mentary education for "daughters of Chelsea Hospital veterans" (239), fits neatly
into a broad social pattern of benevolent engagement that spread throughout the
long eighteenth century, comprising figures from across the political and religious
spectrum. It is fully appropriate that Astell's copy of SPII would find a permanent
home in the King's Cliffe Library, where, to quote from the inscription above the
lintel, "Books of Piety are … lent to any Persons of this or ye Neighbouring Towns."[13]


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The library was only one of host of charitable projects conducted in the 1750s
by William Law, Elizabeth Hutcheson, and Hester Gibbon—including tenement
houses for elderly widows and, fittingly enough, schools for poor boys and girls.

If, in her choice of eleemosynary project, Astell was very much a woman of
her age—M. G. Jones claims of Astell's contemporaries, "the charity school was
their favorite form of benevolence" (3)—she was also, of course, quite literally
pursuing her own longstanding interest in promoting female education. It is true
that the Chelsea school differed in important ways from the unabashedly religious
academy Astell had envisioned in SPI, wherein women of family would have re-
tired, for various reasons and perhaps only for a while, into a veritable utopia of
female companionship and Christian rationalism; "no rhapsodies there," Perry
quips of the Chelsea school, "about Christian love and the need to bend one's
thought always to God" (239). Nevertheless, Astell's school did address the most
pressing concern she had underscored in SPI: the lack of an established venue
for female education. That these were poor girls instead of women of means, that
the school's curriculum consisted of practicing reading and writing rather than
meditating on Arnauld and Malebranche, that religious instruction dwindled
from rapturous to perfunctory–these were differences in degree to Astell, not in
kind (though, undoubtedly, the differences are pronounced). The Chelsea school
was the fruit, however bruised, however long in ripening, of the quite serious
proposal Astell had offered to the reading public over a decade before in her
first published work.

It is both fitting and telling that Astell's final original composition, Bart'lemy
Fair: Or, An Enquiry after Wit
(1709), appeared in the same year that the Chel-
sea school began operating—an indicator, as Perry has suggested, not only of
her waning popularity as a writer, but of a decided shift in her social commit-
ments.[14] However, despite her work on behalf of the Chelsea school during this
period—and despite the onset of a nagging cataract in 1710 (Perry 231)—Astell
nevertheless found time, if not to compose new proposals, reflections, or enqui-
ries, then to revise considerably at least one of her previously published works:
Wilkin published the second edition of her Christian Religion in 1717, a substantial
revision of the original edition of 1705.[15] Might Astell have caught the revision
bug at this period? Having turned the corrected pages of Christian Religion over
to her bookseller, perhaps Astell's momentum carried her to one final text need-
ful of editorial attention, one perfectly suited to carry her then current project
more fully into the public eye. She may already have "overstayed her welcome
in the world of letters," as Perry suggests (231), but Astell would seem to have
discovered good reason to linger a litde while longer.

At its opening, the Chelsea school was housed "in borrowed rooms on the
premises of the Royal Hospital" (Perry 240); there it remained and operated for


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153 years. A borrowed school, however, is not a school of one's own. "[F]rom
at least 1719," Perry explains, "Astell actively campaigned … for the land and
construction costs to build a separate establishment" (240). It was to this end,
I believe, that Astell made the various notes, addenda, and corrections in her
copy of SPII, a new edition of which, had it been published, might have stoked
public interest in her capital campaign on behalf of the Chelsea school. The
failure of her campaign, as Perry notes, may be adequately explained "by the
stock market crash of 1720" (240); then, as now, charitable organizations suf-
fered tremendously in times of economic stress. This fact alone might have been
enough to kill the new edition on which Astell was at work, but it was not alone.
In the same year that the South Sea Bubble burst, thereby siphoning away the
financial resources Astell's proposed schoolhouse desperately needed, Richard
Wilkin died, leaving Astell without the bookseller on whom she had depended
throughout her 25-year publishing career. The gradual petering out of emen-
dations to Astell's text—as shown below in Appendix 1, she made only a few
changes in the final 50 pages—may very well reflect the suffocating weight of
this confluence of discouraging events.


Quoted in Walker, 170. The library building is still standing, its inscription still vis-
ible. The contents of the library, as noted above, have been transferred to the Northampton
Records Office.


"Her last two works had not sold well," Perry notes, and "it would have been unseemly
to remain in public controversy" while soliciting support for her school—which, at any rate,
"entirely occupied [Astell's] attention in its early years" (231, 233).


Astell substantially revised the conclusion to her work, for instance, cutting several
sentences and adding an "Appendix" comprising passages formerly spread throughout the
first-edition text. She also added marginal headings clarifying the particular arguments of
individual sections.