As a Valentine’s Day gift to the world, Wellesley College recently published the original letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning—one of the most famed literary couples—in handwritten form, and for online consumption, complete with sexy thumbnail images of the married pair. What their publication presented was a puzzling paradox of the modern age, less interesting than it probably should be by now. Should something so old, with a kind of holy aura around it just from being so old, be digitized? Does it matter? Does it make it any less romantic?
The bigger question, one would assume, is whether actually having to look something up in a physical book makes it more legitimate as research (which is, I assume, the main motive for the letters being released), and more personal in meaning. But it’s as if the nakedness of the letters, their handwriting, the sentiment expressed in them, somehow feels exploitative. Why should personal correspondence, no matter how old, at a certain point become public information?
But whether or not you’re pondering these questions, chances are you will be annoyed with the fact that the Barrett-Browning correspondence is completely illegible, especially on Browning’s side. One wonders how long it must have taken Barrett, deep in the throes of illness, to decipher actual sentences from Browning’s muddy script. Which only serves to remind us here in the present that love means never having to ask: ‘What in hell have you written, Robert?’