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Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe to Walt Whitman, 3 February 1890

 loc.01393.001_large.jpg Dear Mr. Whitman—

On coming up from a Saturday to Monday visit to Logan1 at Oxford, I have found the delightful surprise of a letter from thee dated January 22nd2 The enclosures, too, I have much enjoyed, & I am sending one of the proofs to Logan, with thy letter to read & return. We were talking a great deal  loc.01393.002_large.jpg about thee yesterday. There are a great many of the "coming men" there who are deeply influenced by "Leaves of Grass" & who find in the curious English mingling of tradition & freedom, history & change, the most appropriate setting to thy lines of Thought. Probably it is only the stress of urgent national crises, such as a war, or of equally urgent national reforms, of which there are many now  loc.01393.003_large.jpg talked about here, that make the masses of men really think freely & generously & act unselfishly—

As thee says—"all goes on well in the United States"—and though one cannot wish for any lack of prosperity, seeing what miseries it entails upon the poor & defenceless, yet one realizes that it is not, as yet, the best condition for the appreciation of bright things. From another point of view,  loc.01393.004_large.jpg in which perhaps thee will not agree with me, I think the "Saints" were quite right in attempting to free the spirit by torturing the body!

Our chief political interest now is in watching, & assisting as far as we can, the spread of "Socialism"—It seems to be permeating everything. I cannot now imagine what life would be like with no interest in politics! And yet I used to be very happy in Germantown!


We had a more interesting visit to Logan. He is very busy, outside his College work, with a "Social Science Club," & also with an attempt to reduce the excessive expenses of Oxford, which make it impossible for any poor men to get educated there. As rich people have evidently no monopoly of brains, it is a great pity that all this splendid training is accessible only to them. Some day a Royal Commission or something like will thoroughly  loc.01393.006_large.jpg expose the manifold inequities of that most delightful of all Universities—& perhaps things will be changed then. We spent all our Sunday discussing the desirable reforms of Oxford, but in spite of that we shall go again to visit it, even in its unregeneate state, as soon as we possibly can. Rukh–mabai,3 my Indian friend was with us—her first visit to Oxford, and she was tremendously interested in it.

I am sitting in the nursery to write, and the exigencies of the  loc.01393.007_large.jpg situation make it very difficult to pursue a connected train of thought. Ray4 is romping about with a huge stuffed monkey of belligerent tendencies, who beats us all unmercifully when Ray brandishes him in her arms. Karin5 is babbling on the floor, playing with blocks, & both nurses are adding a not insignificant share to the general babel. Outside there is a peculiarly disagreeable fog—next door similar sounds from the nursery can be faintly heard through the walls, & I  loc.01393.008_large.jpg grow appalled to think of the awful volume of sound that daily arises from all the nurseries in London!

This is a most unsatisfactory letter—but I feel as if the fog had got into my head. We are to have here tonight a meeting of the Westminster Women's Liberal Association. I am to take the chair, but I haven't yet thought of the necessary speech. I must begin now—so I will close this letter as I began it, with many many thanks for thy kind and most interesting letter.

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. Logan Pearsall Smith (1865–1946) was Mary Costelloe's brother. For more information on Smith, see Christina Davey "Smith, Logan Pearsall (1865–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 2. See Whitman's January 22, 1890, letter to Costelloe. [back]
  • 3. Rukhmabai (1864–1955) was an Indian woman who was prosecuted in Bombay in 1884 for refusing to live with a man to whom she had been married when she was eleven and he was nineteen. The case was widely publicized and became a rallying point for British women's rights activists, who brought Rukhmabai to London, where she entered the London School of Medicine for Women and became a doctor in 1894. See Antoinette Burton, "From Child Bride to 'Hindoo Lady': Rukhmabai and the Debate on Sexual Respectability in Imperial Britain," American Historical Review 103 (October 1998), 1119–1146. [back]
  • 4. 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]
  • 5. 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]
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