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Hidden treasures abound in Armstrong Browning Library

March 6, 2003

By Andrea Nourse

Students can stop by one library on campus and step back into the world of 19th century Victorian England.

The Armstrong Browning Library is home to the world's largest collection of materials related to poet Robert and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It houses rare documents such as a handwritten set of the Sonnets from the Portuguese, including the famous 'How do I love thee' sonnet. Rita Patteson, curator of manuscripts at the Armstrong Browning Library, said the collection is one of only three known sets.

Even with so many relics, the library continues to obtain new material.

Dr. Dianna M. Vitanza, an associate professor of English, is editing 19th century journals as part of a project underway at the Armstrong Browning Library that was funded by Baylor graduates Robert and Anna Wright. The library acquired microfilm of the journals that are housed in the British Library.

Writings of an acquaintance

The journals belonged to Lady Layard, who was born in 1844 as Mary Enid Evelyn Guest. At 25, she married Henry Layard, who served as a diplomat in Madrid and Constantinople (now Istanbul).

'She just had a very interesting life,' Vitanza said. 'One of the reasons that I'm interested in her is that she had associations with Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning.'

When Layard's husband retired, they bought a house in Venice and became good friends with Robert Browning and Browning's sister Sarianna. Layard was involved in trying to solve the marital problems of Browning's son Pen and his wife Fannie, but was unsuccessful.

'She's interesting because of the people that she was associated with, but also she just gives an insight into everyday life in Victorian England,' Vitanza said.

The journals cover the period from 1862 to Layard's death 50 years later. She comments on political issues, literary issues and customs. Vitanza said the journals would be of interest to people interested in 19th century history and literature.

'It's a real treasure trove for people who are interested in various aspects of the 19th century -- literary, cultural, historical and political,' Vitanza said.

The journals will be available on a research database on the Armstrong Browning Library Web site.

Works on the Internet

The Brownings: A Research Guide is an electronic database that, according to the Web site, is meant to facilitate 'the study of the works and lives of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and their circle.' It can be accessed through the Armstrong Browning Library's Web site or at www.browningguide.com.

The database now consists of a list of 70,000 searchable entries in bibliographic format that document all known Browning-related material. Items in the list include the Brownings' correspondence, contemporary reviews of the Brownings' work and supporting documents, such letters written by people in the Victorian period that mention the Brownings.

The correspondence listed in the database refers to letters written by or to the Brownings. Correspondent names include Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Alfred Tennyson. Items in the list can be found throughout the United States as well as England, Canada, Italy, New Zealand, Germany and Russia.

The bibliographical database was sponsored by the late Dr. Howard R. Dudgeon Jr. and his wife Jane.

According to the Web site, when the project is complete in an expected 21 years, it will contain full text and/or relevant images for the items listed in the database.

The library also houses many personal library books that the Brownings had in their home.

'Many people come here to do research using those books because they want to know what was influencing their poetry,' Patteson said.

Dr. D. Thomas Hanks Jr., professor of English, said he likes to take his classes to the Armstrong Browning Library in order to give his class experience working with primary documents.

'It is a major repository of remarkable 19th century documents, chiefly having to do with the Brownings, of course, but with many others, which means that we attract scholars from all over the world,' Hanks said.