Priceless literary manuscripts once thought lost are acquired by British library consortium

Original manuscripts by the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, Robert Burns and Walter Scott have been acquired by a huge consortium of British literary organisations, and will now be donated to libraries and writers’ houses across the UK.

The “unprecedented” acquisition of the Honresfield Library ensures the texts will remain in Britain, and for public use, rather than being sold to private collectors around the world.

Schoolchildren and members of the public will now be able to read priceless literary artefacts like a letter written by Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra in January 1796, in which she mediates on the end of a love affair, a letter she wrote on the eve of a ball.

Also on view will be the poems Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë wrote throughout their twenties from their home in Haworth, Yorkshire, and which were for a time believed lost, and have yet to be properly examined.

The Honresfield Library, a 19th century private library created by the Rochdale mill owner William Law, has been in private ownership for more than a century. It was acquired by Friends of the National Libraries (FNL) for £15m after Leonard Blavatnik, the 64-year-old businessman known as the richest man in Britain, matched the £7.5m sum raised by the charity.

“This literary cornucopia will now belong permanently to the public domain in the UK,” FNL said in a statement.

Blavatnik has long been a patron of the arts in the UK, and is best known for his funding of Tate Modern’s Blavatnik Building. His £7.5m contribution to the FNL campaign is the largest ever given by an individual in Britain for literary manuscripts.

The other half of the funds raised came from a consortium of literary organisations, including the T.S. Eliot and the Foyle foundations, with £2.5m coming from museums and libraries including the Bodleian, the British Library and the National Library of Scotland. Jane Austen’s House in Chawton, Hampshire, and the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth also contributed.

FNL also gained individual donations from thousands of people across the world, who cumulatively raised just under £150,000.

The collection was due to go to auction in July at Sotheby’s, but the auction house agreed to halt the sale in order to provide FNL with the time to raise and secure the funds needed to keep the collection in Britain.

Students of the Brontë sisters will be especially cheered by the news. The collection includes some 25 letters by Charlotte Brontë and seven of her famous ‘little books’, a manuscript collection of poems by Anne Brontë and a small autograph manuscript diary note shared by Emily and Anne Brontë.

The “jewel of the Brontë collection” is Emily Brontë’s holograph notebook of 31 poems, which for a time was believed by scholars to have been lost. The poetry notebook carries annotations in Charlotte’s hand. The collection also includes Emily Brontë’s own annotated copy of their first publication, the exceptionally rare Poems of 1846, and presentation copies of first editions of their novels in their original cloth bindings.

The collection also includes the complete working manuscript of Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy, part of the autograph manuscript of Scott’s verse romance, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, his travel journal of a voyage off the Scottish coast in 1814, a copy of Border Antiquities with extensive manuscript revisions, and a group of Scott first editions in their original condition. Other Scottish material includes an early volume of poems by Robert Burns in his own hand—containing some of his earliest recorded literary works—known as the ‘First Commonplace Book’.

“Rescuing [the collection] has seemed a little like opening an Egyptian tomb to see for the first time ancient texts and treasures which are now saved in perpetuity for students, scholars and book-lovers,” said Geordie Greig, chairman of the FNL, in a statement.

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