Love Letters Digitized: The ‘Triumphant Happiness’ of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert BrowningBy JOHN WILLIAMS
Before you text “I luv u” to your partner on this Valentine’s Day, you might want to visit the newly digitized collection of correspondence between the Victorian poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett for inspiration. (Warning: These letters are likely to make you far less sanguine about your own relationship’s fire.)
Wellesley College and Baylor University collaborated on the project, which began today with more than 1,400 letters by the poets available online. Of those, 573 represent the complete set of love letters, and at least 1,500 additional pieces of correspondence to other people the couple knew are to be up by summer.
Browning wrote first, on Jan. 10, 1845, immediately establishing the intensity that would characterize the relationship:
I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write, whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing: since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning and turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me…Wellesley CollegeElizabeth Barrett’s first letter to Robert Browning, written on Jan. 11, 1845.
Barrett responded just one day later, beginning: “I thank you, dear Mr. Browning, from the bottom of my heart. You meant to give me pleasure by your letter, and even if the object had not been answered, I ought still to thank you. But it is thoroughly answered.”
The relationship inspired Barrett’s most famous sonnet (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”), and the letters show just how frequently such passionate sentiments were expressed. A line from Browning’s letter of May 8, 1846, is one example among hundreds like it: “I would die for you, with triumphant happiness, God knows, at a signal from your hand!” They married in 1846, against the strict wishes of Barrett’s father.
“Most researchers want to see the letters in their original state,” said Darryl Stuhr, manager of digitization projects for Baylor’s electronic library. “These digitized letters are as authentic online as if you pulled them out of an envelope.”
Speaking of envelopes, those have also been digitized and added to the viewing experience.