The Secret Life of Mrs. Astell

Years ago, I ordered the book The Eloquence of Mary Astell by Christine Mason Sutherland on Amazon. It arrived with its cover upside-down and backwards, the pages set together right to left, instead of left to right. Looking back from modern days into the life of a person who lived three-hundred years ago is like that; isn’t it? It’s one thing to read what historians have to say about a historical personage, another to read source documents written by the person herself (in this case, Mary Astell), or by a contemporary who actually knew her. But we still don’t really know Mrs. Astell.

I’m going to propose the preposterous. Perhaps conjecturing that Mrs. Astell secretly kept a whore house would be a little much. What if, though, she didn’t really spend all of her time working diligently, eating plain food and drinking nothing but small beer, and dressing in coarse, plain clothing? What if, behind closed doors, after she had hung her head out the window at visitors and shouted the words Ballard claims she did, “Mrs. Astell is not at home right now;” what if she passed her time in daydreams?

I know of few authors who would not admit to wasting their lives in daydreams. Why should Mrs. Astell be the exception? What if she frequently languished on a sofa with a glass of port and watched a play unfold on the parlor wall of her mind? What if it was a bawdy play, to the style of restoration comedies, before the comedy of manners came into fashion? What if she saw herself as the heroine of the play: a lively Cornelia, as in the famed Feigned Courtesans?

Mrs. Astell, I’m imagining it now: You’re walking from church in your black garb, back from London to Chelsea, through the wintry mists. You enter through your garden, and then through the front door for all the world to see. You are the pious neighbor, the one who arises early on Sunday in order to attend a church that isn’t even in your neighborhood. You hang your bonnet and cloak, light a fire to warm your bedroom, and sit at your coffin.

What is a coffin doing in your bedroom? Well, as you would say, it’s there so you’ll always be thinking of God and the afterlife. When the afterlife is in your thoughts, your thoughts remain pure. It works especially well, you explain, as a writing desk. Your words must glorify God, rather than yourself and your own vanity. Isn’t the coffin empty, though? And isn’t that a sad way to consider your life with God?

You raise the lid of the coffin and peer inside. It’s not empty, but filled with clothes: yes, dress-up clothes. How astonishing! You dress yourself in one item of clothing; it’s a tunic made of bright red cloth. It’s to remind you, so you tell yourself, of the educated women of old, exotic Romans or Greeks, those unlike the English women of your own time. You pour yourself a glass of port, dip your pen in ink and begin to write. You’ve thought about dancing on previous occasions, but you still remain Mrs. Astell and no other. Dancing is not for you. Singing, on the other hand, is an ingenuous diversion well worth your time, as you yourself say in your Proposal to the Ladies. And so you sing.

You carry your books, your port, your papers down into the kitchen, where you prepare yourself a modest meal of bread and cheese. You may live in secret extravagance, but you simply don’t have the time or the money for more voluptuous meals. You carry your food back upstairs, too absorbed in your reading of Descartes to continue in song . . .

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