In a fascinating talk, Clare Broome Saunders introduced friends of OCLW to Louisa Stuart Costello: poet, travel writer, artist, historian, medievalist and biographer. Across her long life, she exploited her skills as a writer across genres and had an acute grape of reading trends and publishing markets. In her time she was extremely well-connected and had a strong critical reputation. But she was forgotten in the modern period: her image as a ‘poetess’ jarred with the changing times and Stuart Costello fell out of fashion. In the 1990s her poetry was rediscovered, and there has also been some academic interest in her travel writing, but both of these only give a snapshot of her extraordinary breath and range.
Louisa Stuart Costello was born in Middlesex to an Irish father. He was in the army and died in the Napoleonic Wars, possibly after changing sides. Thereafter she was the family breadwinner, aged only fifteen, and put her brother through Sandhurst. Her mother, Elizabeth Totridge, wrote a novel which reads like a plea for female education and possibly explains Louisa’s breath of reading and grasp of languages. Her first job was copying manuscripts in Paris, which gave her a lifelong passion for medievalism.
Her first book of poetry was published in 1815 when she was only sixteen. More books followed, which earned her the patronage of Francis Burdett and Walter Scott. By 1825, one critic said that she was revitalising poetry after the death of Byron. She was savvy and knew how to make money, publishing her work in periodicals, and writing reviews which enabled her to mention her own poems. In 1829 she wrote the first 19th century version of the Lady of Shalott, heavily influenced by medievalism. In her version, the Lady is mistress of her own space and chooses to die.
Louisa Stuart Costello translated and illustrated French poetry, reintroducing forgotten poems into English. Though this was a work of serious scholarship, critics focused primarily on the pretty pictures. She switched genre as poetry began to fall out of favour, and became part of the mid-nineteenth century boom in travel and travel writing. Her travel writing encompassed an extraordinary range of styles: from guides to sights, to practical advice, to masculine subjects women were not supposed to engage with. From the 1840s she began to write novels: primarily historical novels which drew on her extensive scholarship, but also a contemporary story which used her travel experiences.
She also capitalised on the genre of life writing: acceptable for women where history was not, writing both literary and historical biographies. Her masterpiece, published in 1850, was The Lay of the Stork, an analogy of the catastrophic Crimean War, again drawing on medieval allusions to suggest that women should have a role in public and political life.
After her mother died in 1846 and her brother in 1865 she moved to France, but returned to England in 1869. She died shortly afterwards of cancer of the mouth, caused by her habit of sucking her paintbrushes. Among her artworks is a miniature of Queen Victoria on her accession.
Louisa Stuart Costello was not only a gifted writer and exceptional scholar but also an extremely professional woman. She had a thorough understanding of the literary marketplace and was confident in switching genres in order to capitalise on new trends. Clare Broome Saunders gave a thoroughly engaging presentation which more than did justice to this multi-talented 19th century author.
Louisa Stuart Costello: A Nineteenth Century Writing Life is available now.