In the presence of so much handwritten material by the Brontës, Austen, Scott and Burns, you find yourself imagining that the authors have just popped out of the room. “Manuscripts,” says Prof Kathryn Sutherland, as she leafs through an exercise book filled by Emily Brontë with poems, “are sticky with their writers’ presence.”
It is partly the extraordinary condition of the material that creates this impression of closeness . The Honresfield library, now saved for the nation, was amassed by a Rochdale mill owner, William Law, at the end of the 19th century and the items have been kept pristine (and almost inaccessible) by his family ever since.
The characters of the authors leap out of the ink, the paper. Here are two letters to her sister, Cassandra, di Jane Austen, written almost two decades apart. The first – in which she states “that the tears flow as I write the melancholy idea” that she will never dance with her beau, Tom Lefroy, again – was written when she was just 20.
In this, the first surviving letter of hers, the handwriting is neat, she fills out the page to the end (no paper wasted) and each line is spaced precisely, as if for efficient comprehension. By the age of 38, when she is writing about the reception of “P&P” as she refers to her most famous novel, the hand is more compressed, più stretto, less youthful. Her signature has been snipped out of this letter – lost to an early autograph hunter.
The manuscript of Sir Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy explains and exemplifies, in a mere glance, the author’s productivity. Words fly across the page, seemingly written in immense bouts of non-stop work, in a fluent legal hand – a style of cursive he had learned while training as a young man in the legal profession, designed to allow you to write as fast as possible.
This was the first and only draft. There are almost no corrections, just the occasional word or sentence mildly revised. Robert Burns’s youthful commonplace book, by contrast – filled with early poems, self-critiques and philosophical observations when he was aged between 23 e 25 – is boldly written in a flamboyant hand, the ascenders of his Ds twisting around themselves in great, curlicued flourishes, “full of a sense of flair and confidence,” says Sutherland.
The tiny storybooks made by Charlotte Brontë to narrate the adventures of her toy-soldier hero Lord Charles Wellesley are, needless to say, spellbinding. The miniature pages are hand-folded, and one can see how they were cut to size by scissors held in small hands. The covers were made from paper packaging from the local pharmacy, stamped clearly with: “Purified Epsom Salts, sold by J West, chemist and druggist, Keighley” – the Yorkshire town being about four miles from Haworth village, where the Brontës lived.
Among the other Brontë items is a “diary paper” written by Emily on her 23rd birthday, 30 luglio 1841, “to be opened when Anne is 25 years old or my next birthday if all be well”. It begins: “It is Friday evening – near 9 o’clock – wild rainy weather.” In the top left-hand corner of the paper she has sketched herself sitting writing at her desk; in the top righthand corner she’s drawn herself looking out of the window at that wild weather.
With a few strokes of her nib, the characterful images bring us into the room with her. An exercise book full of fair copies of 31 of her poems retains the habit of tiny writing, and there is a brilliant page where, at the end of her poem that begins: “How beauteous the Earth is still / To thee – how full of happiness,” her sister Charlotte has added, firmly: “Never was better stuff penned.” In the presence of this triumphant sisterly certainty, who would want to argue?