- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 14, 2012

WELLESLEY, MASS. (AP) - “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 be seen only at Wellesley College, where the collection has been kept since 1930.

But starting Tuesday, Valentine’s Day, their famous love letters are available online, where readers can see them just as they were written _ with creased paper, fading ink, quill pen cross-outs, and even the envelopes.

The digitization project is 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 hope the project will expose students, romantics, poetry fans and others to their love story.

Barrett, one of the best-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 correspondence, they met for the first time, introduced by Barrett’s cousin.

After more than a year of almost daily letters between them, the couple wed 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 will also 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 scholar of Barrett Browning.

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