THE HOURGLASS: The lyrically-laced love letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning

By LAUREN TONTI ’14

Features Editor

“My love, only wait, only believe in me, and it cannot be but I shall, little by little, become known to you.” Robert Browning wrote these words to Elizabeth Barrett on Dec. 30, 1845, in a series of letters that would eventually find a home at Wellesley College. From January 1845 to  September 1846, 19th century English poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning exchanged a total of 573 passionate love letters. These letters, preserved beneath pristine glass on the fourth floor of the Clapp Library, invite you to share in their romance.

Elizabeth became acquainted with Robert as their romance bloomed from the plumes of their fountain pens. They exchanged daily letters back and forth from Elizabeth’s residence at 50 Wimpole Street, where illness confined her. The pair’s correspondence ended with a passionate elopement, and the story continued even after the letters stopped. Following Elizabeth and Robert’s secret marriage, Elizabeth’s father disinherited her, and the couple ran away to Italy, where Elizabeth later gave birth to their son, Robert Wiedeman Barrett (Pen) Browning.

Former Wellesley College president Caroline Hazard donated the letters to the College, in the original leather boxes the poets had kept them in. For a time, the letters lived in the Browning Room of College Hall, which was named after Elizabeth following her death in 1861. The Browning Collection is one of the few artifacts recovered from the Great Fire at College Hall. A bust of Elizabeth, displayed in the Browning Room, was also salvaged from the fire.

The collection itself, a facet of the English Poetry Collection, contains not only the love letters, but also first editions of the Browings’ published work, original manuscripts, and other artifacts from their lives. The birth of this collection stems from another love story. George Herbert Palmer, husband of former Wellesley College president Alice Freeman Palmer, established the Browning Collection. Each year on Alice’s birthday, he presented a gift to the College from the special collection of English poetry he and his wife had begun together.

Wellesley College prizes this collection. The College commissioned playwright Jerome Kilty to write a play based on the letters. The play, “Dear Love,” debuted on November 7, 1969 in Alumnae Hall at Wellesley College. The play was so well received that Kilty took it on tour, telling the story of the letters and Wellesley College throughout the country.

Today, from the comfort of your dorm room, you can scroll through the digitized version of the Brownings’ love letters, made possible through a collaboration between the Wellesley College Special Collections and the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University. Free access to the letters and their transcripts can be found on the Special Collections section of the Wellesley website, under the Browning Collection. Take a moment to trace the hidden treasures, past and present, that Wellesley has to offer.

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