A consortium of British libraries and museums has announced that it successfully raised more than $20 million to buy a “lost” library containing rare manuscripts by Robert Burns, Walter Scott and the Brontës, heading off an auction and preserving the collection intact.
The collection, known as the Honresfield Library, was assembled in the 19th century by two British industrialists, but had gone all but unseen since the 1930s. The announcement last May that it had resurfaced and would be auctioned by Sotheby’s drew excited reactions from scholars, as well fears that the collection could be scattered into inaccessible private collections.
“A collection of literary treasures of this importance comes around only once in a generation,” Richard Ovenden, the head of the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford, said in a news release earlier this month announcing the deal.
The arrangement, he said, will ensure it is “available to scholars and the wider public, now and long into the future.”
After the outcry last spring, Sotheby’s agreed to delay the auction, allowing the group, Friends of the National Libraries, to raise money to purchase the collection whole. With the completion of the deal, the manuscript holdings will be distributed to eight institutions: the Bodleian; the British Library; the National Library of Scotland; the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds; and house museums dedicated to Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Robert Burns and the Brontës.
The roughly 1,400 printed books in the collection will be dispersed among a wider group of institutions across Britain.
The $20 million came from a number of individual and institutional donors. Half of it came from the philanthropist Leonard Blavatnik, in what the release called the largest ever gift to the United Kingdom by an individual for a literary treasure.
Alfred and William Law, two self-made mill owners who grew up less than 20 miles from the Brontë home in Haworth (which is now the Brontë Parsonage Museum), began collecting what became the Honresfield Library in the 1890s. After their deaths, the collection passed to a nephew, who granted access to select scholars, and had facsimiles made of some items.
But after the nephew’s death in 1939, the originals fell out of public view. By the 1940s, the collection had become “well-nigh untraceable,” as one scholar put it at the time.
One of the most prized parts of the collection was a group of manuscripts by the Brontës, including an 1844 handwritten manuscript of Emily Brontë’s poems with pencil edits by Charlotte. It had carried an auction estimate at Sotheby’s of $1.1 million to $1.7 million — a near record for a modern English literature manuscript, according to Sotheby’s, had it been reached.
Other highlights of the collection, which was being sold by unidentified relatives of the Law brothers, include the complete working manuscript of Scott’s 1817 novel “Rob Roy” and the manuscript compendium known as Burns’s “First Commonplace Book” from 1783-1785, which contains some of his earliest literary writings.
The collection also includes what the consortium called “two hugely significant letters” by Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, including one from 1796 (the earliest surviving letter in her handwriting) in which Austen, then 20, discusses a love affair. Only three early Austen letters are preserved in any British national collection, according to the group. Most that survive are at the Morgan Library in New York City.
In the announcement, Gabriel Heaton, the Sotheby’s specialist who organized the planned sale, called it “a collection like no other that has come to market in recent decades.”
The successful campaign to keep it intact, he said, “is a testament to what can be achieved by public institutions and private collectors.”