Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were Victorian poets. The Armstrong Browning Library here at Baylor University, in conjunction with Wellesley College, Balliol College at Oxford University, The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and Ohio State University, created an unparalleled collection of their correspondence. It is available digitally as part of the Baylor Digital Collections.

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Image: Wellesley College, Margaret Clapp Library, Special Collections
Among this collection there are 574 love letters written by the couple. These love letters, which are some of the most famous in literary history, span from January 1845 to September 1846. This selection of their letters covers the time of their courtship. The last of the 574 letters was written a week after their marriage.

Since full-text of all the love letters is available, we decided to text mine them to see if we could learn anything more about the correspondence through digital means. What we discovered was, in turn: interesting, staggering, and heart warming.
Let’s start with the interesting. After filtering out stop words (words like “is”, “and”, “the”, “at”, etc.) we found that the Browning’s top five most used words were:

  1. Say
  2. Shall
  3. Think
  4. Know
  5. Dearest

Next, let’s look at the staggering. In their 574 letters, the Browning’s wrote 400,813 words to each other. Over the course of under 2 years that’s a really impressive amount of things to say! And it makes me feel a little guilty about the brevity of the text messages that form the basis of my romantic life.

Also impressive is that of those 400,813 words, 23,751 were unique words. To put that into perspective, an independent study from an American-Brazilian team found that most adult native English speakers today know somewhere between 20,000-35,000 words. Obviously, the Browning’s used an impressively wide vocabulary in their letters to each other.

Finally, let’s look at the heartwarming. By tracking the poets’ usage of the word “dearest” over the course of all the letters we can see the relationship get more serious over time.

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The x-axis here represents the letters over time (Voyant does this by breaking up the letters in 10 equal, chronologically ordered chunks) and the y-axis is the number of times the word “dearest” occurs. The graph shows an impressive upsurge in the use of “dearest” over time. From just 1 usage in the first chunk of letters to 172 in the final chunk.
We see a similar pattern when we look at the usage of the word “love” across all of the letters.
This graph functions the same way: the x-axis shows the letters over time and the y-axis shows the frequency of the word “love.” Look at how their usage increases over time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more adorable graph.

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The 2 terms plotted together also creates a compelling graph. By plotting them together some of the small variations in the graph shape are ironed out and the overall stark upward increase is even more clear.
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Ultimately, I felt like text mining the letters gave me an interesting glimpse into the Browning’s love story. Certainly, you can read the letters and see the growing affection, but they were both brilliant people and their letters discuss a lot of topics. The text mining offered a more distilled view of the letters, which I found really helpful. Graphing a love story doesn’t sound terribly romantic at first, but now I really think it might be. Through text mining and graphing, it seems we are able to really clearly see these two people fall in love.

Notes on the Digital Scholarship

  • All the text mining for this project was done with Voyant. Here’s a tutorial for that tool.
  • The text we used was a published version of the love letters, now in the public domain and available digitally through Project Gutenberg
  • If you’d like to explore the letters further, this link has the text pre-loaded into the Voyant interface.
How do I love thee? Let me count the words.

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