I am not talking about Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere or Paris and Helena.
These two are not as widely known, but their story “is surely one of the most fascinating love-stories in the world” (Kenmare 1957:7).
This is not your average Boy Meets Girl kind of story.
The way in which they ‘met’ was not face to face but more.. of the face to paper variety. Nowadays, there are websites dedicated to online dating, chatting your way into love. But back in 1845, this was clearly not the case and therefore, letters were the only option.
This love story began with a certain Robert Browning, poet and playwright, writing a letter to Elizabeth Barrett, poet, after finishing her latest volume of poems.
Browning began his letter not with “Dear Miss Barrett” or something of the sort, he began by writing “I love your verses with all my heart” (Browning 1845:1).
And what an opening that was… but his praise and love for her work is not all he poors into this first letter.
He admits to having had the opportunity to see her years ago and now: “I feel as at some untoward passage in my travels-as if I had been close, so close, to some world’s-wonder in chapel or crypt” (Browning 1845:4-5).
The doubt, selfcorrections and deletions merely add to the passion with which he wrote this letter. No draft for this sir, but straight from the heart!
…But was it really?
In the third week of our Letters as Sociohistorical-Linguistic Documents class, we had to look at The compleat letter writer and saw that there were also letters of courtship and love. As it turns out, there are letter manuals that solely focus on the art that is the writing of love letters. I was able to find three of them (using ECCO) that were published in the mid to late 18th century.
- The academy of compliments, being the rarest and most exact way of wooing a maid or widow, … With passionate love-letters, courtly sentences to express the elegance of love; … Together with a choice collection of songs. (1760)
- The lover’s instructor: or, the whole art of courtship, rendered plain and easy. Containing: I. Ingenious letters, proper for both Sexes, on Love and Courtship. II. Elegant love letters in verse. III. The art of personal courtship in several Dialogues, IV. Novels and dialogues relative to Love. With several other curious particulars. To which is prefixed, A Preface, directing each sex how to make a prudent choice in a partner for life. To this edition is added a collection of toasts and sentiments, in three classes. (1777)
- The complete art of writing love letters; or, the lover’s best instructor. In which The Tender Passions are displayed in all Forms, real or feigned; as discovered in the Sincere Modest Honourable Rapturous Passionate Forlorn Lover Insidious Base Perfidious Treacherous Dissembling Mercenary With Rules and Instructions to the Fair Sex, how to make a happy Choice of a Good Husband. Exhibiting in a series of Letters, a variety of Truth and Falshood, Sincerity and Treachery, Happiness and Misery, with several Examples in both Kinds. To which are added, some elegant Forms of Messages for Cards. (1795)
(They really did know how to pick their titles back then, huh?)
Could it be that Mr Browning and Miss Barrett learned how to write these love letters by reading through several letter writers or were their words truly their own?
Do the love letters in the letter writer even compare to a true written courtship filled with admiration, love and passion?
The answer is… I have no clue whatsoever.
And therefore, I feel obliged to compare the language of the love letters by Mr Browning and Miss Barrett to that of the love letters in the letter writers to see whether there are differences or similarities in their language and if there are, where they can be found.
Kenmare, Dallas. (1957). The Browning Love-Story. London: Peter Owen Limited.
The Browning letters are made available by the Baylor-Wellesley Collaboration and can be found on their website: http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/ab-letters.
The first picture is from http://lunamacha.blogspot.nl/2009/09/robert-and-elizabeth-browning-love.html.
The second picture is from http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/feb/14/love-letters-barrett-browning-valentines.