Sotheby’s “lost library” auction will sell rare handwritten Brontë poems

A remarkable collection of Brontë family manuscripts, hidden in a legendary “lost library” for almost a century, will be auctioned by Sotheby’s as part of three sales between 2021 and 2022. Comprising more than 500 documents, the Honresfield Library collection boasts work by the Brontë sisters, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), and Robert Burns (1759-1796).

The collection as a whole paints a unique portrait of the passions of one of the greatest and least-known collecting families from a golden age of book collecting,” explained Gabriel Heaton, an English literary specialist at Sotheby’s.

At the edge of the West Yorkshire moors, the Honresfield Library was assembled not far from where Charlotte (1816-1855) and Emily Brontë (1818-1848) grew up in the early 19th century. By the 1890’s the industrialist brothers Alfred and William Law began collecting manuscripts for their family library at Honresfield House, acquiring some of the Brontë heirlooms from the notorious literary forger Thomas James Wise (1859-1937).

Their nephew later inherited the trove, but the library vanished from public view after his death in 1939. Its whereabouts became almost the stuff of legends, with one 20th-century scholar describing the Laws’ collection as “well-nigh untraceable”. The sellers, who are Law family descendants, have chosen to remain anonymous.

It’s just absolutely gobsmacking,” declared author Claire Harman. “Scholars and readers have known these things exist, but you forget when they are in private hands. It’s like Sleeping Beauty — there but not there.”

An edition of 31 handwritten poems by Emily Brontë are without doubt the star lot of the sale, valued between £800,000 and £1.2 million. Composed in February 1844, the poems were annotated by her sister Charlotte who found them extraordinary. One comment read “Never was better stuff penned”. Although Emily had no intention of publishing them, Charlotte convinced her to include them in a self-funded volume of poetry by the three Brontë sisters, under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Only two copies were ever sold, but the volume spurred the sisters on to write their celebrated novels.

The trove also includes first-edition copies of ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Wuthering Heights’, and ‘Agnes Grey’, each valued at £200,000. There are signed letters by Charlotte to the writer Julia Kavanagh (1824-1877), five first editions of Jane Austen (1775-1817) novels, and a copy of ‘Don Quixote’ by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), printed in 1620.

A spokesperson for Sotheby’s added “in the last 90 years, only one or two (very discreet) scholars have had access to slivers of the material, so essentially, only two people alive have seen any of it.”

The collection will be displayed at Sotheby’s New York from 4 – 9 June 2021 and in London from 10 – 12 July 2021. Bidding for the first sale ends on 13 July 2021.

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