The Brontë Society is calling for immediate government intervention to prevent the “priceless” literary treasures of the Honresfield Library, which include a rare notebook of Emily Brontë’s poetry, from disappearing back into private hands at auction.
The Honresfield collection of more than 500 historic literary items vanished from public view in 1939, and was seen by only one or two academics over the subsequent years. The collection includes the only surviving handwritten manuscript of some of Emily Brontë’s best-known poems, complete with annotations by her sister Charlotte, as well as Brontë family letters and books, and important manuscripts by Robert Burns and Walter Scott.
It was announced earlier this week that the library, which was put together by brothers Alfred and William Law, who grew up near the Brontë family home in Haworth, is set to be auctioned by Sotheby’s later this year, with Emily’s poems valued at between £800,000 and £1.2m.
But the trustees of the Brontë Society are calling on MPs to take action to save the “unique” collection for the nation. Describing the library as “unrivalled in its holdings of northern British literary treasures”, the society has written to all northern MPs and elected mayors warning that the Sotheby’s auctions will see “trophy items” acquired “at prices beyond the reach of British museums and libraries”, with many liable to “disappear into the bank vaults of international private investors”.
“This calculated act of heritage dispersal has no regard for matters of curation, conservation, scholarly access or public benefit,” writes chair Trish Gurney. “The Honresfield Library is not just paper and ink, but cultural good.”
Oxford academic Professor Kathryn Sutherland, who is working with the society, warned that “without immediate government intervention in the public interest a national collection hidden for 100 years will soon be scattered piecemeal across the world – perhaps never to be seen”.
Sutherland suggested that the library would be “the perfect founding collection for projected developments at British Library North”, which is being planned for Leeds.
“We urge its purchase intact and whole in the national interest. Retained as a coherent collection, it will repay scholarly investigation and provide enjoyment for all lovers of literature for the next 100 jare,” said Sutherland.
Ann Dinsdale, the principal curator at the Brontë Parsonage Museum where the family lived, described the manuscripts as priceless.
“My ideal would be for it all to be kept together and for it to be at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, but the main thing is that it goes to a public collection, where it can be cared for appropriately, and where it will be available for generations to come,” Dinsdale said.
The Brontë Society, which was founded in 1893, is also calling for the government to establish minimum standards of conservation and curation for items of national literary heritage in private ownership.
Dinsdale said she found it heartrending to think about the collection returning to private hands. “I’ve heard of wealthy collectors framing literary artefacts and hanging them on the walls where they’re exposed to light," sy het gese. “There’s nothing to govern how those things are cared for.”
Sotheby’s said that while the material going up for sale had always been in private ownership, it had all been “fully published and the contents are therefore freely available to those interested in the Brontës”.
“The decision was therefore made to offer it at auction, while ensuring that relevant institutions, including the Brontë Parsonage, were given advance notice of the projected sale in order to allow them time to raise funds should they wish to acquire the originals,” it said in a statement. “It is also worth pointing out that when material like this is acquired by collectors abroad, it often ends up on public view, as an ambassador for British culture.”
The auction house added that “private collectors can be great custodians of such material, and these items have been very well cared for by a private family for almost 130 jare. Often private collectors are very happy to allow scholars access to their holdings, and in this case there has been some scholarly access maintained throughout the long line of ownership.”