The U.K. organization Friends of the National Libraries (FNL), which provides funding for a network of the region’s public museums, has raised more than £15 million ($20.13 million) to acquire a trove of manuscripts that have been out of the public eye for a century and that was set to be auctioned.
Named The Honresfield Library collection, the cache of documents includes more than 500 manuscripts and letters by 20th literary giants including the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen as well as Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. It was assembled during the Victorian era by British industrialists and brothers Alfred and William Law, who grew up near the Brontë family and acquired some the Brontës’ works from literary dealer Thomas James Wise, who purchased them directly from Charlotte Brontë’s husband. The collection was inherited by one of the Laws’ descendants, and has gone largely unseen since the 1930s, when that descendant died.
Last May, Sotheby’s announced that the Law family heirs were parting with the collection across three sales, but the auction house postponed the sale at the FNL’s request, to allow the group time to raise funds for the acquisition on behalf of its consortium of institutions. The group’s acquisition will keep the collection in the public sphere in the U.K., making the long-unseen documents accessible to scholars.
Among the top items in the collection is an edition of 31 handwritten poems by Emily Brontë from February 1844. Annotated with edits by her sister Charlotte, Sotheby’s valued the book at $1.3 million–$1.8 million. First-edition copies of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, all of them dating to 1847, alongside a signed letter by Charlotte Brontë to writer Julia Kavanagh are among other examples of the trove’s most valuable works. Also included are five first editions of Jane Austen novels, including Emma and Pride and Prejudice, and a copy of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, printed in 1620.
Collector and British arts patron Leonard Blavatnik contributed half the $20.1 million total raised by the museum group for the collection, which will be renamed the Blavatnik Honresfield Library in recognition of the gift. Another £4 million ($5.4 million) was donated by the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF). Additional funds were given by the Prince of Wales Charitable Fund, the American Trust for the British Library and David Cock foundations.
The collection will be donated across eight of the consortium’s institutions, including the Brontë Parsonage Museum (Haworth), the British Library (London and Yorkshire), Jane Austen’s House (Chawton) and the National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh and Glasgow). Around 1,400 printed books in grouping will also be distributed on loan to other institutions across the UK.
“I can only congratulate the [FNL] chairman, Geordie Greig, and his team for saving the Blavatnik Honresfield Library for the nation, with its treasures now to be owned by some of our greatest national libraries across the UK,” said Charles, the Prince of Wales, royal patron of FNL in a statement. “Our literary heritage is our cultural DNA and this preserves it for students, teachers, academics, and ordinary readers in perpetuity.”