Intertextuality in Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) and in Reflections upon Marriage (1706)

Intertextuality in Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) and in Reflections upon Marriage (1706)

This post is part of a series authored by our collaborators on the Intertextual Networks project. For more information, see here. 

By Ioanna Kyvernitou, National University of Ireland, Galway

 For Intertextual Networks, I am evaluating the markup in two works of Mary Astell (1666–1731) as found in Women Writers Online–A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest (1694) and the third edition of Reflections upon Marriage (1706)–in order to consider practices for encoding intertextuality. Astell, a philosopher and theologian who supported women’s right to education, is considered one of the earliest English feminist writers. She is also known for her critiques of the philosophers John Norris and John Locke. Current scholarship analyses her writings within the context of her political (Toryism), philosophical (Cartesianism-Platonism), and religious (Anglicanism) beliefs. Within this framework, this study aims to identify Astell’s intertextual practices by exploring WWP’s the XML markup–specifically the elements designed to encode bibliographic features (e.g., <quote>, <said>, <bibl>). These two works are treated here as case studies in order to discuss the ways in which XML representation can provide a formal framework for representing complex intertextual practices in literary works.

In my preliminary work, I have identified relevant markup in relation to intertextuality (from the WWP’s Internal Encoding Documentation) in order to query and retrieve the occurrences of those tags from the two XML files as provided by the WWP. Specifically, with the help of Sarah Connell and Syd Bauman, I used XQuery–a language for querying XML data–to search for Astell’s references to proper names (i.e. <persName>, <name>, <placeName>, <orgName>). Further, I investigated the personal names’ structural contexts (<p>), aiming to identify the function of onomastic intertextuality (person and place names). Finally, I searched for biblical, classical and bibliographic references (i.e. <quote>, <said>, <bibl>, and <regMe>) in these works.

In the case of indirect references, which go beyond the straightforward markup of direct quotations, it is necessary to consult secondary literature to help us identify the source(s) of reference and the identity of implicitly noted authors. The challenge is that, on many occasions, there are different interpretations among scholars regarding the source of influence or person quoted (as discussed below). Thus, in incorporating multiple interpretations within the markup, the encoding process becomes more complex and expensive—but also more enriched. While the existing markup does not annotate implicit references to an author or indirect quotes, the Intertextual Networks project will be piloting such encoding in an initial set of texts; the project will also be linking quotations to their sources and authors, which will make retrieval and analysis of quoted passages easier.


 According to the WWP’s internal documentation:

The <quote> element is used to encode material which is identified as originating outside of the passage where it appears, regardless of where the material actually originates. For our purposes, <quote> can include proverbs, mottoes, common sayings, passages from other texts (including fictional passages from imagined texts), or quotations from other parts of the same text in which the quotation appears.

Following this definition, I searched within the XML files for occurrences of the <quote> element in order to identify its use in Astell’s works. In Proposal, is used only four times and in Reflections eighteen. Currently, the WWP uses a pilot encoding in order to implement more detailed markup for cases where quoted material is paraphrased or parodied from its source. For these cases, the @type attribute is used with values of “parody” and “paraphrase”. Some of these conceptual challenges are addressed in the ‘Methods’ section of the proposal for Intertextual Networks: Reading and Citation in Women’s Writing 1450-1850, where it is recommended, similarly to parody and paraphrase, to handle allusions by treating them as special types of quotation and using the TEI @type attribute to characterize quotes as “direct,” “paraphrase,” “allusion” (and other terms as needed).

Along these lines, updating Astell’s XML files with an expanded and more detailed markup–for example, tagging paraphrases, proverbs and echoes–would be useful, especially for retrieval purposes of these instances. This post uses a passage from Reflections to explore how a more in-depth encoding can be made in order to include information concerning: quoted person(s) – explicitly or implicitly mentioned –, paraphrased passages, and ways to connect quote(s) with quoted person(s).

In the passage below (presented first without markup), Astell argues about the role of custom in perpetuating the subordination of women (emphasis added),

That the Cuſtom of the World has put Women, generally ſpeaking, into a State of Subjection, is not deny’d; but the Right can no more be prov’d from the Fact, than the Predominancy of Vice can juſtifie it. A certain great Man has endeavour’d to prove by Reaſons not contemptible, that in the Original State of things the Woman was the Superior, and that her Subjection to the Man is an Effect of the Fall, and the Puniſhment of her Sin. And that Ingenious Theoriſt Mr. Whiſton aſſerts, That before the Fall there was a greater equallity between the two Sexes. However this be, ’tis certainly no Arrogance in a Woman to conclude, that ſhe was made for the Service of God, and that this is her End. Becauſe God made all Things for Himſelf, and a Rational Mind is too noble a Being to be Made for the Sake and Service of any Creature. The Service ſhe at any time becomes oblig’d to pay to a Man, is only a Buſineſs by the Bye. Juſt as it may be any Man’s Buſineſs and Duty to keep Hogs; he was not Made for this, but if he hires himſelf out to ſuch an Employment, he ought conſcientiouſly to perform it. Nor can any thing be concluded to the contrary from St. Paul’s Argument, 1 Cor. II. For he argues only for Decency and Order, according to the preſent Cuſtom and State of things. Taking his Words ſtrictly and literally, they prove too much, in that Praying and Prophecying in the Church are allow’d the Women, provided they do it with their Head Cover’d, as well as the Men; and no inequality can be inferr’d from hence, neither from the Gradation the Apoſtle there uſes, that “the Head of every Man is Chriſt, and that the Head of the Woman man is the Man, and the Head of Chriſt is God” (A2r–A2v)

Astell uses three sources to support her argument. She first notes ‘A certain great Man’ who argued about women’s superiority before the Fall; she then paraphrases William Whiston, a Cambridge theologian; and she concludes with a biblical reference (1 Corinthians 11:3) to support women’s equality. In the current markup, only the biblical reference (i.e. <bibl><regMe>1 Cor. II.</regMe></bibl>) and the direct quote are encoded, whereas the two cases of indirect references are not tagged.

‘A certain great Man’ & ‘Mr. Whiſton

For a more complete encoding, the <quote> element and @type attribute with a value of “paraphrase” could be added to highlight instances of these indirect references, bearing in mind that, as noted in the ‘Methods’ section of the proposal for Intertextual Networks, “the boundaries of paraphrases and allusions are less determinate than those of direct quotations.”

Regarding the authors quoted, in the first case, Astell refers indirectly to ‘A certain great Man’, whereas ‘Mr. Whiſton’ is explicitly named (i.e. <persName ref='p:wwhiston.ycp'>Mr. <hi rend='slant(upright)'>Whiston</hi></persName>). For the latter case, we can also use @role on <persName> to indicate that Mr. Whiston is being referenced as an author; we can use @source on <quote> to point to a bibliography entry, with more detailed information on the source.

 For the “certain great Man,” we could add <rs> with a @type of “author” to mark this as a reference to an author, however indirect; we can also use @ref to point to more information on the identity of this author. In this case, there are different interpretations among scholars regarding the author’s identity. Specifically, Apetrei suggests that it is possible that the “great Man” was Agrippa von Nettesheim, a German polymath, who argued for the superiority of the female sex (131). Springborg, on the other hand, proposes that this could be a reference to the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (11). Based on these authorship claims, one approach would be to use @ref to point to an <alt> element, whose @targets would themselves point to personographic entries for the two potential authors. Even where there is no agreement on the quoted person, it would be helpful to incorporate current scholarship in the encoding of the primary text to reflect the different interpretations. This can be achieved, for example, by adding a <note> element in the XML file, discussing the different scholarly interpretations and identities of probable sources.

Biblical and Bibliographic References: ‘St. Paul’s Argument’

The third case is an example of encoding bibliographic references and citations by using the <bibl> element. Within <bibl>, the tag <author> is used to encode the author’s name, if present, along with a nested <persName>. The <regMe> element is used to encode bibliographic references or citations of the Bible or other texts for which a standard or canonical reference system exists.  The WWP internal documentation suggests that <regMe> should be placed within the <bibl> element that encloses the complete reference. Following these definitions, I have counted eight occurrences where <regMe> is nested within <bibl> in Reflections and found none in Proposal.

A closer look at these occurrences, with the XML markup of this passage from Reflections, shows two distinct usages of personal names (the markup below has been simplified for the purposes of this example):

Often a personal name can be a quoted author, as in the case of Saint Paul in the above example. But there are also occasions where personal names are nested within a <quote>, as in the case of ‘Christ’. This is another case where we can use @source as described above to make authorship and other bibliographic information more explicit and queryable. Lastly, before introducing Saint Paul’s quote, as seen above, Astell refers to him as ‘Apostle’. This is one of many examples of coreference–when two or more expressions in a text refer to the same person. Thus, this is another example of where <rs> with @role of “author” and @ref pointing to a persongraphy entry could make the markup more detailed and useful for future research.

The challenges of formally representing the various types of intertextuality mean that the boundaries of structural and interpretive markup become more fluid. The more detailed the markup becomes, the more in-depth understanding of the primary text and its secondary literature is required. This is a process that can be time-consuming, especially for large-scale projects. Nevertheless, investigation of the use of personal names within their surrounding contexts can enrich the representation of intertextuality. As a next step for this study, I will explore further how linguistic and rhetorical emphasis tags (i.e.<emp>, <term>, <distinct>) can be connected to indirect quotation practices in order to identify other implicit references, currently not present in the markup. I will base this on Astell’s practices in her correspondence with John Norris, Letters Concerning the Love of God (1695), aiming to compare references in her three works, and open the way to reconstructing a more complete picture of her intertextual practices.

Works Cited

Apetrei, Sarah Louise Trethewey. Women, Feminism and Religion in Early Enlightenment                

England. Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

Springborg, Patricia. Mary Astell, Political Writings. 1st ed. New York: Cambridge University

Press, 1996. Print.



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