The Honresfield Library, a rare collection of nationally significant literary manuscripts, has been acquired for the nation thanks to a £15m fundraising campaign.
The library of more than 1,400 printed books was formed in the 19th century by William Law, a Rochdale mill owner, and includes manuscripts and documents relating to the Bronte family, Jane Austen, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott.
The library, which has been largely inaccessible to the public for the past 80 years, was due to be sold off in a series of auctions earlier this year. Sotheby's auction house agreed to postpone the sale to allow time for negotiations for the library in its entirety to be acquired for the nation.
Describing the sale as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to bring a collection of such significance into public hands, a consortium of literary and heritage institutions, led by the Friends of the National Libraries (FNL), joined forces to successfully raise £15.3m to acquire the library.
The National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) gave a grant of £4m towards the purchase, the largest it has ever awarded towards the acquisition of literary manuscripts since its foundation in 1980.
The principal benefactor was the American-British investor and philanthropist Leonard Blavatnik, who donated half the purchase price after match funding the £7.5m sum raised by the consortium. The collection has been renamed the Blavatnik Honresfield Library in recognition of his donation.
Ros Kerslake, chief executive of the NHMF, said: “This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire such an outstanding and nationally significant collection. The NHMF is a fund of last resort, and the astonishing array of manuscripts will join over 1,000 heritage treasures saved for the nation.
"With the Blavatnik Honresfield Library now secured for public ownership, organisations across the UK will benefit from these literary gems joining their collections.
“I am proud that this incredible archive will be the last major acquisition we will support under my leadership, before I step down at the end of the year.”
FNL will now donate the entire collection to relevant libraries and writers' museums across the UK.
Relevant items will be donated to the following institutions:
Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë
- The British Library, London and Yorkshire
- The Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth
- The Brotherton Library, University of Leeds
- The Bodleian Library, Oxford
- Jane Austen’s House, Chawton
Sir Walter Scott
- The National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh and Glasgow
- Abbotsford: The Home of Walter Scott, Melrose, Scotland
- The National Library of Scotland
- The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway (National Trust for Scotland)
Lizzie Dunford, director of Jane Austen's House, said: “It has been a privilege for Jane Austen’s House to be a part of this truly ground-breaking campaign, spearheaded by inspirational individuals, to save these extraordinary literary treasures for the nation.”
Ann Dinsdale, principal curator at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, said: “The acquisition of the Blavatnik Honresfield Library is a significant moment in our nation’s cultural history. The Brontë Society is immensely proud to have played a part and is very grateful to FNL, our consortium partners, funders, and our very generous donors. To display these literary treasures in the place they were written will be a privilege and the undoubted highlight of my 32 years at the Brontë Parsonage Museum.”
The Honresfield Library includes the complete working manuscript of Sir 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 of significance 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, as well as individual autograph poems (Cessnock Banks and the Brigs of Ayr), and a group of the poet’s earliest correspondence, including the only extant letter to his father.
At the library’s heart lies a set of manuscripts in the hands of the Brontë siblings, much of which has been unseen for 80 years and never properly examined. It includes seven of Charlotte Brontë’s famous “little books”; a manuscript collection of poems by Anne Brontë; some 25 letters by Charlotte 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, believed by many scholars to have been lost. This poetry notebook carries annotations in Charlotte’s hand. The printed treasures of the sisters include Emily Brontë’s own annotated copy of their first publication, the rare Poems of 1846, and presentation copies of first editions of their novels in their original cloth bindings.
Jane Austen is represented by two hugely significant letters to her sister Cassandra (only three such early autograph letters are held in any UK national collection, the bulk being in the Morgan Library, New York). One is a very early letter, written on the eve of a ball where she anticipated the end of a love affair; the second dates from 1813 and discusses the reception of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. The collection also includes first editions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in their original condition.