love letters

A lovely announcement today: the love letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning have been digitized and are freely accessible to all. What a treat!

For me, it’s also an opportunity to muse about love, passion, desire and how we put all of that into words (and more specifically, into letters), and further, it’s a chance for me to think through the materiality of letter writing and about the meanings that reside in the extra textual spaces of the letter… I can’t promise it’s entirely coherent, but it is, nonetheless, a rumination on expression and reception, gifts given and gifts received.

The letters I’ve been spending time with are about as far removed from love letters as you can possibly get, though I suppose it is true that the extent of the correspondents’ admiration for Tissot sometimes seems to verge on adoration and love.

That’s not to say that love isn’t present in the letters. It absolutely is. But it is not something that shapes the relationship between the writer and the recipient. Rather, love emerges in the spaces between the words. Love, as an emotion, directs the pens of many correspondents as they seek cures for the sufferings of their spouses, their children, their parents. Love emerges, too, in medical observations, as doctors explain family situations to Tissot. Love, in these letters, is something that binds spouses together, that links parents with children. It is the glue that underpins many letters.

But love, in these letters, is not the full blown passion of romantic relationships.

My aunt has the love letters sent to my grandmother by my grandfather. I haven’t  read them, but I remember being awestruck by the sheer length of a poem that he wrote her early in the 1930s. The paper was rolled up, still held together with its original ribbon…and the poem went on and on and on.

I suppose one never thinks of one’s own family members as passionate romantics. Grandparents are simply that, grandparents. As a grandchild, I never spent much time considering their passions and desires.

But what might we learn about love, passion, and desire by looking to those who came before us? How do such emotions shape us as individuals? How do they shape the way we see and interact with our world?

And where does love exist in our bodies? How do we articulate it? Where do we find a language for that which touches us at the very heart of our beings? What does that language look like? What does it sound like? Can we touch it?

The letters exchanged by Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning have long been counted among the great exemplars of the art of epistolarity. Liz and Bob (if I may) shared an extraordinary love, an illicit, intense and enduring passion that has been captured in just under 600 letters written in under two years.

There are modern editions of these letters, careful transcriptions that put handwritten word into print. But this is not the same as touching the paper, smelling it, feeling the ink.

Reading a handwritten letter requires a process of embodiment. If there’s anything I learned from my work with the letters of Suzanne Curchod Necker, it is that relationships between absent correspondents are strengthened by the bond of shared touch, of paper and ink exchanging hands.

I know you, I think. Not only because your words are dear to me, but because this paper allows me to touch you. Because we have touched this paper together. I can feel where you folded it. In the blurred out word I can make out the hint of a tear. Here and there, between the words, I can catch traces of you. If I breathe deeply, I imagine that I can smell you. My fingerprints join with yours, blending together, mixing, mingling….

Through this paper, I touch you just as you, in writing, have touched me.

A typewritten transcription, no matter how well done, will never capture the immediacy of the physical artifact. Nor (and here I think as a scholar working with letters..) can it stand in for the power of archival experience. The wonder of touching the private letter. The awe and responsibility that shake you to your very core.

“I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett; and this is no offhand complimentary letter that I shall write….”

So begins the very first letter written by Robert Browning. It’s not the same, here, on this computer, in a conventional font. The typeface distances. Depersonalizes. Liz and Bob just become anonymous humans seeking out love in challenging circumstances.

But go and visit the newly digitized collection. While you still can’t physically touch the letter, it’s there for you – in Bob’s handwriting, on paper of his choosing. And we know, too, that Liz read this letter. And that they kept these letters close, travelling with them to Italy and back. Through the digitization process, Liz and Bob become, once again, Miss Barrett and the very faithful Robert Browning, flesh and blood souls who lived and who loved with passion.

Love is not only about words; it is about what lies behind, between, around and inside those words. It is about hidden touch. It is about illicit passion. It is knowing that the letter you wrote will physically touch another, and knowing that your inks will bleed and that your fingerprints, now joined together, can never be ‘rent asunder.’

Love, for Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, is indeed a many splendoured thing.


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