A lost treasure of works by the Brontë sisters was intended for sale. Then Great Britain rallied.
LONDON – The story of the discovery and recovery of a treasure chest of letters, diaries, poems and manuscripts, written in tiny, meticulous handwriting by beloved canonical English writers, pioneers, the unbelievable Brontë sisters, reads like… what?
An exaggerated Victorian novel or costumed BBC drama, loosely based on it.
The literary treasure has practically disappeared from view. For almost a century it was dark.
Then it was put up for sale. And Brontë fans were appalled. And the nation rallied.
Who saved this material, the rarest of the few, from auction to private collectors?
Well Britain’s richest men saved him. Sir Leonard Blavatnik, the US-UK-Ukraine petrochemicals, finance and entertainment tycoon, poured half the money to buy it from the public a few weeks ago – with a little help from the prince Charles and thousands of small donations.
What do Brontë scholars say?
Like lifting a lid from King Tut’s tomb, dear reader.
“This is particularly amazing … because myths have been woven around the material over the decades. Did it really survive, or was it lost or even destroyed? Said Kathryn Sutherland, professor at Oxford University.
Sutherland is a consultant to Friends of the National Libraries, the charity that saved the collection from public auctions and scattering by raising $ 20 million to purchase the entire library, which will soon be placed in institutions like the British Library and literary houses such as the Brontë Presbytery Museum.
“Holding a notebook in my hand, like I did, was a pretty amazing time,” Sutherland told the Washington Post. “You are holding something they were holding.”
She said, “It’s just sticky with the presence of the writer.”
“You see, I think, their minds at work,” Sutherland said.
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Google “Brontë” next to “mania”.
Lots of hits.
In the Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz observed: “I see no reason not to consider the cult of Brontë a religion. The sisters, she writes, “turned domestic constraints into water for shiny books.”
Long ago, the Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily, Anne – became subjects of fascination, prized for their work: “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte, “Wuthering Heights” by Emily and the lesser-known wonder of Anne, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”, considered by some to be the first feminist novel.
The sisters are celebrated for their writing – totally – for the creation of three-dimensional Jane and Catherine and the bad boys Byronic M. Rochester and Heathcliff.
But what made them famous was their story, and these new papers can open new windows to those lives.
There were five sisters, the oldest two died as children. The three surviving daughters were raised in Haworth Rectory in the north of England in the Yorkshire moors with their liberal-minded father, an Anglican priest and their brother Branwell (a minor poet, not a bad painter , but at the end a gin – a demon of opium soaked, which sets his bed on fire).
As teenagers, the sisters made the famous palm-sized “little books” from scraps of wrapping paper. Their juvenilia – fake magazines, one-act plays, and news about fantastic worlds and the make-believe lives of Branwell’s tin soldiers.
As adults, they worked hard as housekeepers. Only Charlotte got married later. They wrote poems and hid them from themselves.
And one by one, they died young: Anne at 29, Emily at 30, the eldest Charlotte at 38.
In their abridged lives, cut short by tuberculosis, they created three classics of English literature, rebooted year after year in films and television series.
Two of the sisters have never tasted their glory.
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Last year, Sotheby’s announced that it was preparing to auction off a cache of literary manuscripts and first edition novels, collected by single brothers William and Alfred Law, two self-taught 19th-century mill owners who amassed their home library, Honresfield House, less than 20 miles from Haworth Rectory, where the Brontes wrote their masterpieces.
“The Victorians loved to collect and a lot of Victorians built libraries, but William Law was exceptional,” said Gabriel Heaton, a specialist in English literature and historical manuscripts at Sotheby’s, who prepared the material for sale.
William Law had a perceptive and very focused eye – he bought a Shakespeare First Folio – but seems to have been particularly interested in Brontë’s material, traveling to Haworth to buy stuff from the neighbors.
He acquired some of the best materials from the merchant who bought direct from Charlotte’s widower.
This straight-line provenance – which manuscripts and letters passed through so few hands – not only increases their value and wow effect, but their preservation.
“The material is in remarkable condition,” Heaton said.
When the Law brothers died in the early 20th century, their nephew, Alfred Law, MP for the Conservative Party, who died in 1939, inherited their Honresfield library. Sir Alfred allowed a handful of scholars to see the library in the 1920s and 1930s. After his death? Almost no one saw it.
Alfred’s heirs knew they had something special, but they requested privacy, and the treasure has been mostly invisible for over 80 years.
Brontë’s materials include: 25 Letters from Charlotte and seven of her famous ‘Little Books’, a collection of manuscripts of Anne’s poems and diary notes shared and written by Emily and Anne on their respective birthdays.
The Crown Jewel is an ordinary lined notebook, the kind a college student would buy at a stationery store, that contains 31 poems by Emily.
The poems are all known. But here they’re each written in Emily’s own handwriting, and the remarkable thing about the manuscript is that Emily also seems to have written edits of her poems – and maybe Charlotte, too.
Emily’s crosses appear in ink. Charlotte may have annotated the works in pencil, the researchers suspect. More will be known as the cache is examined by the experts.
At the end of the manuscript are the words: “Never better was written.” »Pride of fatherhood? Or a sister’s message of love?
According to tradition, Brontë experts say that Emily wrote her poems in secret, but they were discovered by Charlotte, and after some back and forth, the three sisters in 1846 self-published a small volume of their poetry, under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, using the first letters of their names but assuming a male disguise.
He would only have sold two copies.
Rebecca Yorke, acting director of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, recalled going to the vaults of Sotheby’s on Bond Street in London to examine the collection.
“It was really, really moving,” she said.
Emily’s poems were written “in a student’s best handwriting.”
“But then to see the fixtures …” she said.
“It’s the most magical thing,” Heaton said.
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Sotheby’s announced in May its intention to auction the material in three installments this summer. Sold to the highest bidder. The sale was to be an event.
The scholars were dismayed. The Brontë Society denounced “the very real possibility that this immensely important collection could be dispersed and disappeared into private collections around the world” and condemned “the narrow commercialization and privatization of heritage”.
The company wanted Brontë’s best stuff for the Parsonage Museum. “We are determined to save as much as possible, but due to the dramatic financial impact of the pandemic, now is not the time. As Covid has bolstered the comfort and hope we find in literature and culture, museum revenues have fallen to next to nothing and competition for public funds has become fiercer than ever, ”the group warned.
The Friends of the National Libraries, whose boss is Prince Charles, stepped in and persuaded Sotheby’s and the vendors to take a break and give the association time to raise funds.
Oligarch Blavatnik contributed $ 10 million, which the Friends of National Libraries on his website called “the largest ever given to the UK by a private individual for literary treasure.”
Prince Charles, in a statement, said the library was for Britain only. “Our literary heritage is our cultural DNA and this preserves it for students, teachers, academics and ordinary readers in perpetuity,” said the Prince of Wales.
The newly named Blavatnik Honresfield Library contains more than just Brontë’s treasures. There are also letters written by Jane Austen to her sister, Cassandra, one of which anticipates the end of a love affair; a letter to his father and a first volume of poems in his own hand by Robert Burns; and a travel journal and the complete working manuscript of “Rob Roy” by Sir Walter Scott.
The material will be donated to research libraries in England and Scotland as well as Jane Austen’s House, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Abbotsford: The Home of Walter Scott and the Brontë Parsonage Museum.