Poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning Famed love connection goes online
WELLESLEY, Mass. — "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett ..."
So begins the first love letter to 19th-century poet Elizabeth Barrett from her future husband, fellow poet Robert Browning.
Their 573 love letters, which capture their courtship, their blossoming love and their forbidden marriage, have long fascinated scholars and poetry fans. Though transcriptions of their correspondence have been published in the past, the handwritten letters could only be seen at Wellesley College, where the collection has been kept since 1930.
But since last Tuesday, Valentine's Day, their famous love letters became available online where readers could see them — just as they were written — with creased paper, fading ink, quill pen cross-outs, and even the envelopes the two poets used.
The digitization project was a collaboration between Wellesley and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, which houses the world's largest collection of books, letters and other items related to the Brownings.
Wellesley administrators hoped the project would expose students, romantics, poetry fans and others to their love story.
Barrett, one of the most well-known poets of the Victorian era, suffered from chronic illness and was in her late 30s when Browning first wrote her in 1845 to tell her he admired her work.
In their fifth month of corresponding, they met for the first time, introduced by Barrett's cousin.
After more than a year of almost daily letters between them, the couple married in secret in September 1846, defying her father's prohibition against her ever marrying.
They fled from London to Italy, where doctors had told Barrett her health might improve. Her father disinherited her and never spoke to her again.
"It's the fact that she defied her father, she was in ill health, they fell in love through letters, she left with hardly anything," said Ruth Rogers, Wellesley's curator of special collections.
"If you want a perfect romance, just read the letters," she said.
The website set up for readers to see the correspondence includes both the handwritten letters and transcriptions, as well as a zoom function for readers to try to decipher faded or illegible words. The body of letters also will be searchable by keywords.
Readers can see for themselves how they fall in love, while corresponding about other writers, philosophy and their own work. Barrett first wrote the lines of what would become her most famous poem after she met Browning, "How Do I Love Thee? Let me count the ways."
Consider this, from Barrett's letter to Browning on June 4, 1846: "You are too perfect, too overcomingly good & tender — dearest you are, & I have no words with which to answer you."
Or this, from Browning to Barrett, Sept. 18, 1846, shortly before their marriage: "God bless and strengthen you, my ever dearest dearest ... Write to me one word more — depend on me ..."
"She met someone who she could share a seriously important part of her life with," said Sandra Donaldson, an English professor at the University of North Dakota and a recognized scholar of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
"Seeing these things that they touched — even though we are seeing it on the screen — has much the same effect as being able to see and touch the manuscripts," she said.
"When you look at the transcriptions, it's cold, black and white. It's nothing like these letters," she said of the handwritten online manuscripts.
Rogers said one of the most interesting things about the love letters is that Barrett almost left them behind when she and Browning left for Italy.
In her last letter to Browning, dated Sept. 18, 1846, she says she had to take them with her.
"I tried to leave them, & I could not — That is, they would not be left: it was not my fault — I will not be scolded," she wrote.
Henry Durant, who founded Wellesley College in 1870, admired the Brownings and considered Elizabeth Barrett Browning to be an example of a strong, educated woman who would be a good role model for the young women of Wellesley. Durant gave his large personal library to the college, including many first editions by both poets.
Because the college already was known for its Browning room and collection, Robert Browning donated Elizabeth's handwritten poem, "Little Mattie" to the college in 1882.
Former Wellesley President Caroline Hazard purchased the collection of Browning letters, and in 1930, donated them to Wellesley, where they have remained.
The library even has the actual mahogany door to the Barrett house in London, where Browning's letters to Elizabeth passed through a brass letter slot.
The slot was screwed shut by a Wellesley librarian more than 40 years ago because students slipped through letters of their own to pay homage to the Brownings. Rogers said she is considering reopening the slot.
The digitized letters will be made available free online through Baylor's digital collections. Baylor transformed 1,723 raw digital images from Wellesley into more than 4,200 edited page and envelope images, said Darryl Stuhr, manager of digitization projects for Baylor's electronic library.
Baylor also digitized more than 800 other letters written by or to the couple by friends, family and other literary greats of the era.
Stuhr said Baylor needed 107 gigabytes for the love letters alone.
"It is giving worldwide access to the collection, where somebody can actually see what the letters look like without having to travel, from the comfort of their own homes," Stuhr said.