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Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe to Walt Whitman, 25 January 1889

 loc.01381.001_large.jpg Dear Mr. Whitman—

I am afraid it has been a long time since I sent thee a letter, although I have wanted to write every day.

We have been, since the New Year, in the midst of the most interesting of all our political fights, which is the more interesting from the fact that it was successful. The London Council, of which Frank1 is a member, is practically a loc.01381.002_large.jpg Parliament for the most important city in the world. London has never had municipal government, though with its 5,000,000 people it is almost a State in itself—but now the new County Councils Act has given the popularly elected body almost unlimited power. They can do practically what they choose—& it is here that the various forms of Socialism will be practically thrashed out—for the world to see. The men who are elected are in a great majority strong reformers & loc.01381.003_large.jpg Liberal—"progressists" is the new word for them—& we all expect the tendency of their policy to be distinctly Socialistic. There is one noted socialist, John Burns,2 among them, but next to him I suppose Frank is the most "advanced"—Last night the chief of the "Fabians"3—the most important Socialistic body—descended upon us to induce Frank to become the spokesman of their party, & it is quite likely that he may ultimately find himself in that position—though he loc.01381.004_large.jpg does not actually call himself Socialist.

We are greatly delighted over his return, for it seems, for the moment, an opportunity for even greater immediate usefulness than a seat in Parliament under a Tory Government would be. But then Frank is an incurable Optimist & always sees that things are "for the best."

The work that this involves is of course immense, & I hardly see how he can manage it along with is​ legal work, but I suppose it will be fitted in somehow. I loc.01381.005_large.jpg am going into it heart & soul with him, for I think it is really important & worth devoting one's self to.

Two women have been elected—but by a curious & very English-y mandate, it is quite uncertain whether they are really qualified to serve or not. A petition has been filed against Lady Sandhurst4 —one of the women—which will decide the matter before the Queen's Bench. Frank hopes to expend some of his loc.01381.006_large.jpg legal knowledge on the case—of course in favour of the women!

Mother,5 Father6 & Alys7 have been away from all this turmoil. We all spent our Christmas holiday in Normandy together, & when we came home they went to Paris & then on down to the Riviera, & are now in Mentone enjoying the blue sky & warm air & the lovely, lovely scenery. Their pleasure is heightened by the reflection that the fog in London has been almost loc.01381.007_large.jpg continuous since Christmas.

I wish I could bring little Ray8 for them to see. She is grown a big girl now, & can actually say four or five consecutive words, & remember as far back as three days! She tells me at night everything anyone has done to her in the day—When I ask her "What did papa do?", she invariably answers "Papa bizz" (busy)—And it is not far from the truth—This election contest has overwhelmed him with work.


I see from the American papers that you are having a mild winter. I hope thee has been able to go out a good deal. The regret that I cannot live near thee grows greater instead of less every year. It is dreadful to know so little of what thee is really doing.

Now that the press is over, I hope to be able to write soon again.

With best love, Thy friend Mary Whitall Costelloe  loc.01381.009_large.jpg

P.S. Jan. 26

I have just been cheered by the sight of thy handwriting. Many thanks for the "Boston Transcript"—I enjoyed Mr. Rhys'9 London letter much. It is a beautiful Spring-like day today. I am going to take little Ray to the "Zoo" for the irst time.


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. Benjamin Francis Conn Costelloe (1854–1899), Mary's first husband, was an English barrister and Liberal Party politician. [back]
  • 2. John Burns (1858–1943) was an English politician, a socialist, and a trade unionist. He served as a member of Parliament for Battersea and held such positions as President of the Board of Trade during his career in goverment. [back]
  • 3. The Fabian Society emerged in 1884 and was at the center of an upsurge in socialist activity in Britain in the 1880s. Fabians played a key role in founding the Labour party in 1990 and have a commitment to non-violent political change and social justice that continues today ("Our History," Retrieved from: [back]
  • 4. Margaret Mansfield, Baroness Sandhurst (1828–1892) was a prominent suffragist and spiritualist who was elected to the London County Council in January 1889, becoming one of the first women elected to a city council in the United Kingdom. The Conservative Beresford Hope petitioned against her election because she was a woman, and a few months later, Sandhurst's seat was given to him after the courts ruled against her. She continued to serve as a council member of the Women's Franchise League, a member of the executive committee of the Central National Society for Women's Suffrage, and, later, as the president of the Society for Promoting the Return of Women as County Councillors. [back]
  • 5. Hannah Whitall Smith (1832–1911) was a Quaker preacher and writer born in Philadelphia. She is best remembered for her 1875 The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life and her 1903 The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered it: A Spiritual Autobiography. She was married to Robert Pearsall Smith in 1851 and her surviving children were Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe (Berenson), Logan Pearsall Smith, and Alys Pearsall Smith (Debra Campbell, "Hannah Whitall Smith (1831–1911): Theology of the Mother–Hearted God," Signs [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989, 15:1], 79–101). [back]
  • 6. Robert Pearsall Smith (1827–1898) was a Quaker who became an evangelical minister associated with the "Holiness movement." He was also a writer and businessman. Whitman often stayed at his Philadelphia home, where the poet became friendly with the Smith children—Mary, Logan, and Alys. For more information about Smith, see Christina Davey, "Smith, Robert Pearsall (1827–1898)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 7. Alyssa ("Alys") Whitall Pearsall Smith (1867–1951) was born in Philadelphia and became a Quaker relief organizer. She attended Bryn Mawr College and was a graduate of the class of 1890. She and her family lived in Britain for two years during her childhood and again beginning in 1888. She married the philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1894; the couple later separated, and they divorced in 1921. Smith also served as the chair of a society committee that set up the "Mothers and Babies Welcome" (the St Pancras School for Mothers) in London in 1907; this health center, dedicated to reducing the infant mortality rate, provided a range of medical and educational services for women. Smith was the daughter of Robert Pearsall and Hannah Whitall Smith, and she was the sister of Mary Whitall Smith (1864–1945), the political activist, art historian, and critic, whom Whitman once called his "staunchest living woman friend." [back]
  • 8. 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]
  • 9. Ernest Percival Rhys (1859–1946) was a British author and editor; he founded the Everyman's Library series of inexpensive reprintings of popular works. He included a volume of Whitman's poems in the Canterbury Poets series and two volumes of Whitman's prose in the Camelot series for Walter Scott publishers. For more information about Rhys, see Joel Myerson, "Rhys, Ernest Percival (1859–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
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