When a philosopher seems insensitive about the plight of a class of people, we are tempted to say that they are writing from the perspective of the ivory tower, and that they lack the knowledge needed to understand what the people they write about are really going through. Some commentators have been skeptical of Wollstonecraft’s views on marriage and love in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman because she was still single when she’d written it. Those same commentators don’t stop and note that her last work, written when she had been in two relationships and was a mother, gave an even straker account of the marital state, reaffirming all the caution she had put forward in the Vindication and more.
It is tempting to take a similar attitude to early 18th century philosopher, Mary Astell, who wrote a book about the marital state without having ever been married herself. But here, we have evidence that she knew in some details what she was talking about, even if not from personal experience. She was writing about the marriage of her famous neighbour, Hortense Mancini, the Duchess of Mazarin, who had just died, at the age of fifty-three, when Astell published her Reflections on Marriage, in 1700.
Mancini who was the niece of the Cardinal Mazarin, had run one of the most celebrated literary salon in 17th-century London, a salon infamous because she allowed women to drink and gamble as well as men. Married at 15 to a very rich man, who inherited through her the wealth and title of the Cardinal of Mazarin, Mancini ran away from her husband’s home after seven years of unhappy and abusive marriage, leaving behind their four children. Mancini survived – and indeed, thrived - through the patronage of powerful men, including Louis XIV and Charles II, while having affairs with both men and women. All these details Astell almost certainly knew as Mancini had recorded them on one of the earliest Memoirs published by a woman in 1775. Although she kept some details to herself (she was after all still alive), Mancini did not hold back when describing her marriage, and although we might be tempted to attribute some of the goriest details to spite, they are in fact confirmed elsewhere.
Given that Astell knew of the details of the Mazarin marriage, her diagnosis seems a little harsh. She writes that Mancini sought ‘Consolation under Domestick troubles from the Gaieties of a Court, from Gaming and Courtship, from Rambling and odd Adventures, and the Amusements mixt Company affords’. But this, Astell carries on, could only provide temporary relief, ‘Plaister up the Sore, but will never heal it; nay, which is worse, she makes it Fester beyond a possibility of Cure.’
Certainly there was no real way out for Mancini, no escape from the need for dependence on men for her survival. She could not take up a profession, or even receive an income – as she did from Louis XIV – without her husband being allowed to confiscate it. As a married woman in the seventeenth century, she had no right to property of her own. Nor did she have a right to her children. Had she attempted to take them with her, they would have been captured again and brought back to their father. So Mancini could not choose to take up a quiet domestic life, away from her tyrant of her husband, where she would be a virtuous mother to her children. Nor was retiring to a convent apparently much of an option: her husband did send her to a convent, but this was another way for him to control her. And shortly after he had her released, she escaped. Mancini’s only options were to put up with the domestic conditions that were her lot, or to set up on her own as a courtesan and a saloniere.
Astell does not argue that Mancini simply ought to have made the best of her domestic situation. She pities Mancini for having been forced into marriage with an extremely unsuitable husband and without having been prepared for it through education. Mancini, as a teenager, was a party girl, not a studious one. She did not have the resources to make the best of the isolation her husband inforced on her, or to attempt to reform her husband by modelling virtuous behaviour.
In her Memoirs, Mancini portrays her husband as extremely religious, mentally unstable and with a pronounced mean streak. Distrustful of his young wife’s fidelity, he took her away from Paris whenever the King did not require his presence there. And noting how she did not like to travel to remote parts of France, he made sure to take her with him whenever the King sent him on business, even insisting she travel long distance while heavily pregnant. Not only did h forbid her to have male visitors, but he conducted midnight searches to make sure she wasn’t smuggling them in. While they were not traveling, he required his wife to spend hours every day praying. The Duke of Mazarin’s unstability was well-known as it affected not only his wife, but his extensive art collection, in part inherited from his wife’s uncle. He was known for attacking and emasculating his sculptures with a hammer – either because he disapprove of sexual organs on display, or because he was jealous of the admiration they’d received from one of his wife’s friends. The Mazarin Adonis at the Louvres (now restored) was one of the statues he mutilated.
Although she cannot condone the wife’s running away, Astell aslo strongly condemns the husband’s treatment of the wife:
To be yoak'd for Life to a disagreeable Person and Temper; to have Folly and Ignorance tyrannize over Wit and Sense; to be contradicted in every thing one does or says, and bore down not by Reason but Authority; to be denied ones most innocent desires for no other cause, but the Will and Pleasure of an absolute Lord and Master, whose follies a Woman with all her Prudence cannot hide, and whose Commands she cannot but despise at the same time she obeys them, is a misery none can have a just Idea of, but those who have felt it.
But Astell does not believe that even documented cruelty of a husband justifies a woman leaving home:
The Christian Institution of Marriage provides the best that may be for Domestick Quiet and Content, and for the Education of Children; so that if we were not under the tye of Religion, even the Good of Society and civil Duty would oblige us to what that requires at our Hands.
Domesticity, Astell thinks, is a natural way for people to live with one another in mutual dependence, and improve one another. An older, patient husband may educated by his wife, so that she is better able to live with him in peace and harmony. An educated wife may set the example for her husband, helping improve his character, and also educate her children, so that they may in turn have happier lives. But just as importantly, an educated woman will have the inner resources to bear an unhappy marriage, to have the necessary patience to live with a tyrannical husband, and to preserve themselves from falling into a slave-like dependency, their spirits crushed by the constant need to obey.