The British Library Has Joined Forces With Other U.K. Institutions to Save a Historic Manuscript Collection From the Auction Block

Valued at $21 million, the Honresfield Library includes rare material from Jane Austen, Walter Scott, the Brontë sisters.

A 1841 birthday gift for Anne Brontë with a written message from her sister Emily, included in the Honresfield Library. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Next month, a once-in-a-generation collection of literary manuscripts, including pieces by Jane Austen, Walter Scott, and the Brontë sisters, was set to hit the auction block.

But now, a consortium of British libraries and museums have come together in an attempt to save the prized group of manuscripts from being split up and disappearing into private hands—and Sotheby’s has agreed to postpone the sales while the effort is underway. 

The collection in question is the Honresfield Library, a historic assemblage of handwritten letters, sketches, drafts, and other literary ephemera compiled by Victorian industrialists William and Alfred Law in the late 19th century. Items in the collection include a handwritten manuscript of Emily Brontë’s poems, a complete draft of Scott’s 1817 novel Rob Roy, and a pair of letters from Austen to her sister.

A first edition copy of Jane Austen's <i>Emma</i>. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

A first edition copy of Jane Austen’s Emma. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The Honresfield Library has remained out of public view since 1939, and many scholars believed it to have been all but lost. In late May, when Sotheby’s announced a series of sales dedicated to the library, scholars quickly scrambled for ways to keep it intact.

In stepped the Friends of the National Libraries (FNL), a charity dedicated to the preservation of written and printed heritage in the U.K., as well as a group of eight independent institutions including the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, and the respective house museums of the Brontës, Austen, and other authors. 

In a statement this week, the consortium vowed to raise the £15 million ($21 million) needed to purchase the collection and redistribute it to libraries around the U.K. “for the benefit of the public.”

“Once in a generation, a collection of books and manuscripts appears from almost nowhere that is met with a mixture of awe and stunned silence, followed by concerted action to bring it into public ownership,” said John Scally, an FNL trustee and the head of the National Library of Scotland, in a statement. “The U.K.-wide consortium is determined to raise the funds to ensure we can save the Honresfield Library for everyone to share and enjoy.”

The consortium has put out a plea for help from institutional funders and individual philanthropists, while the FNL has launched a crowdfunding campaign

“We are pleased to play our part in this potential outcome for this great library,” said Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s specialist in English literature and historical manuscripts, in a statement. “The unprecedented initiative is testament to the continued power of literature to inspire the public so many years after these writers first put pen to paper.”

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