Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe to Walt Whitman, 10 May 1889

Date: May 10, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01384

Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Caterina Bernardini, Alex Ashland, and Stephanie Blalock

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40 Grosvenor Road,
Westminster Embankment,
10 May 1889.

Dear Mr. Whitman—

I was very, very glad to get thy postal card1 & thy congratulations on the birth of our second little daughter,2 who is two months old today. We have just brought her back from the country, where we all had a most delightful Easter holiday. How thee would have enjoyed our drives! The fields & lanes were starred with primroses & daffodils, & the hedges were just breaking into bloom. The air was fragrant & warm & the birds seemed intoxicated with joy at the return of Spring. The English country is so beautiful—it is different, too, from anything we can see at home. There is a mellow historical air brooding over everything—the old common lands, dating from Saxon times—which are beautiful even if they are not useful in an agricultural sense—the quaint old rambling villages with mossy thatched roofs, clustering about the gates of some lordly park, of whose castle or gabled Manor House one can catch glimpses through the magnificent trees—I do not say I approve of grand castles & dependent villages—or even of so much waste land. But I enjoy it even more than an Englishman could, I think, since I don't feel responsible for its existence.

We have come back again to work, political, legal, & social—& of these three the hardest is the social. I grow more disinclined every year for the kind of amusement which society here offers—which is not amusement at all, but a struggle for notoriety.

Little Ray3 has entered the enchanted land of imagination. She lives in "'tories" & "p'etends" & we are in terror of our lives from her deadly assaults as a "bear-lion." She usually eats her supper in the character of an "efelant" with a "long nose" & a "big mouff," & when she wakes up in the night I sometimes find her transformed into a loudly purring "pussy-cat" or a wriggling "'nake." Her little sister is still in the mental attitude of an oyster—except that on occasion she can do what I believe no animal ever did—laugh. But that is not quite true—I can remember one animal who used to laugh—Antecellere—the horse I had so many years. He used to laugh when I fell off—sometimes he laughed so hard that he would forget to run away.

There is an English friend of mothers' who has long been a disciple of thine. She is going to America soon & is so very anxious to see thee that I ventured to give her a letter to thee. But I told her of thy ill-health & warned her that thee might not be well enough to see her—so thee will not [feel in?] necessary at all, if thee doesn't feel like seeing her when she comes.

I am just preparing a speech on "Sugar Bounties"—which I am to give soon at The Annual Meeting of the Women's Liberal Federation.4 It is one of the burning questions of the day, & is really the old contest between Free Trade & Protection, under a new form. I am on the Free Trade side, in spite of my American upbringing.

I must close to get this in today's post. With love & always with sincerest wishes for thy health, I am,

Thy friend
Mary Whitall Costelloe

Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe (1864–1945) was a political activist, art historian, and critic, whom Whitman once called his "staunchest living woman friend." A scholar of Italian Renaissance art and a daughter of Robert Pearsall Smith, she would in 1885 marry B. F. C. "Frank" Costelloe. She had been in contact with many of Whitman's English friends and would travel to Britain in 1885 to visit many of them, including Anne Gilchrist shortly before her death. For more, see Christina Davey, "Costelloe, Mary Whitall Smith (1864–1945)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


1. Costelloe is referring to Whitman's postal card of April 19, 1889[back]

2. Karin Stephen (née Catherine Elizabeth Costelloe) (1889–1953) was the second daughter of Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe. She would become a British psychoanalyst and psychologist, and the wife of Adrian Stephen (psychoanalyst and prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group, and brother of Virginia Woolf). [back]

3. Rachel Pearsall Conn Costelloe (1887–1940), known as Ray Strachey, was the first daughter of Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe. She would later become a feminist writer and politician. [back]

4. The Women's Liberal Federation was a British organization affiliated with the Liberal Party. It was formed by Sophia Fry (1837–1897) in 1886 and lasted until 1988. Among other things, the federation advocated for women's suffrage (steadily since 1892) and promoted just legislation for women. [back]


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