The romance of Elizabeth Cleveland, at left, and Evangeline Whipple is the subject of a book of letters edited by Tilly Laskey and Lizzie Ehrenhalt. Kingsmill Marrs Photographs, Massachusetts Historical Society

BRUNSWICK — As the 19th century was winding down, two prominent women met and sparked a love story that would outlive them both.

“Precious & Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918,” a collection transcribed, organized and co-edited by Tilly Laskey and Lizzie Ehrenhalt, tells the tale in detail of that romance’s survival across the miles and decades.

Laskey, a Brunswick resident and curator at the Maine Historical Society, will discuss the book in Curtis Memorial Library’s Morrell Meeting Room, 23 Pleasant St., at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9.

Tilly Laskey, co-editor of “Precious & Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918,” stands next to Whipple’s grave in Bagni di Lucca, Italy. Cleveland is buried to Whipple’s right, out of frame. Courtesy Tilly Laskey

The book contains about 135 complete letters, along with some fragments that could not be matched. “We included everything in the book,” Laskey said in an interview Oct. 28, adding that for years the letters had been reviewed in pieces without being seen as a whole.

People “were just pulling out the parts that, quite frankly, had to do with sex, and not looking at everything else,” she explained. The letters are mostly those penned by Cleveland, since Whipple’s cannot be found. However, Cleveland quotes from Whipple’s letters at times.

Cleveland was the sister of President Grover Cleveland, who served non-contiguous terms in 1885-89 and 1893-97. Because he was unmarried until 1886, his sister served as first lady in the meantime.

Laskey came upon the letters in 2004, when she curated the American Indian collection at the Science Museum of Minnesota by Bishop Whipple, Evangeline’s husband. She was interested in Evangeline Whipple’s philanthropy and work with Native American tribes, and transcribed the letters through a grant, “but I didn’t really feel like I had the background or the knowledge to be able to do anything with them on my own,” she said.

Ehrenhalt, with whom Laskey worked on another historical project, convinced her that the letters should be more than just a chapter in a book on Whipple, but rather worthy of a book themselves.

“Lizzie helped me to understand the importance for queer people to be able to see themselves represented in historical documents like that,” Laskey said. “And Liz and Evangeline are two of the most captivating people that you’ll ever come across. … They’re funny, they’re frustrating, they’re emotional; it’s just a great love story. It runs the gamut of being incredibly in love and passionate, to heartbreak, to getting back together.”

Ehrenhalt, “MNopedia” associate editor with the Minnesota Historical Society, echoed those sentiments in an interview Oct. 29. Poring through the letters in chronological order, “the thing that struck me right away was how they told a coherent story, with a beginning, middle and end,” she said.

There’s the start, when Cleveland met Evangeline Marrs Simpson, a wealthy widow, at the same hotel in Florida in early 1890. “Apparently, it’s pretty explosive, if you read the first couple of letters,” Laskey said.

“You are mine, and I am yours, and we are one, and our lives are one henceforth, please God, who can alone separate us,” Cleveland wrote that May. “I am bold to say this, to pray and to live by it.”

In Act 2 of the story, Simpson in 1896 married Henry Whipple, Minnesota’s Episcopal bishop, which led to the aforementioned heartbreak. But the two remained in touch, conversing about humanitarian work and advocacy they undertook states and countries apart.

The third and final piece comes after Whipple was widowed again, and the two reunited to travel extensively in Europe. They ended up in Italy, where refugees were being resettled after World War I’s end in 1918. Working as a nurse, Cleveland was stricken by the Spanish fever and succumbed 11 days after the war’s end.

Whipple described her as “my precious and adored life-long friend” – hence the book’s name.

The two women have remained by each other’s side since Whipple’s 1936 death: They are buried next to each other in Bagni di Lucca, Italy, under matching Latin crosses, as per Whipple’s request.

“Their families knew, everybody knew, and it wasn’t anything to be hidden; it wasn’t anything that anybody really even thought about,” Laskey said.

Same-sex relationships were accepted through the beginning of the 20th century, “when it started becoming a pathology,” she said. “Rather than just something that people did.”

“There have been people having same-sex relationships for millennia,” Laskey said. “While it’s unfortunate that we have to document and point to those things, this (book) clearly shows that two women in the Victorian era had a really beautiful and a really complicated relationship.”

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