A “literary cornucopia” saved for the nation by the Friends of the National Libraries

Following the announcement earlier this year that Sotheby’s would sell the Honresfield Library, a collection which includes important works relating to the Brontë sisters, the Friends of the National Libraries (FNL) organisation has raised a staggering £15 million to acquire the collection for the U.K. 

The collection contains more than 500 manuscripts and letters by some of the most important literary names of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such as the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, Robert Burns, and Sir Walter Scott. The library was put together by brothers Alfred and William Law, Victorian mill owners who grew up near the Brontë family. Some of the treasures of the library include first edition copies of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, a copy of Cervante’s Don Quixote printed in 1620 and a book of handwritten poems by Emily Brontë with annotations by her sister Charlotte Brontë. The collection was inherited by descendants of the Laws and has remained hidden from public eyes since the 1930s.

Upon the announcement that the collection would be sold at Sotheby’s, concerns were voiced in the heritage community that the collection would be dispersed and many items would end up in private hands out of sight from the public again. The Brontë Society condemned the sales, criticising “the narrow commercialisation and privatisation of heritage.” They claimed that they were “determined to save as much as we can, but due to the dramatic financial impact of the pandemic, the timing is unfortunate. While Covid has reinforced the comfort and hope that we find in literature and culture, museum revenue has fallen away to almost nothing and competition for public funds has become fiercer than ever”.

However, the FNL came to the rescue and Sotheby’s agreed to postpone the sales, giving the organisation an opportunity to raise the necessary funds. Half of the £15 million the organisation raised came from the philanthropist Sir Leonard Blavatnik, who is currently the wealthiest man in the UK. The collection will be renamed the Blavatnik Honresfield Library in honour of his substantial contribution. Donations also came from the Prince of Wales Charitable Fund, the American Trust for the British Library, and many other organisations. The National Heritage Memorial Fund donated £4 million, the largest amount it has ever awarded for the acquisition of literary manuscripts since its foundation in 1980. The FNL, which aims to save the country’s written and printed heritage through acquisition grants to national and regional archives, libraries and collections, will donate the Honresfield Library across eight institutions, including the Brontë Parsonage Museum, the British Library, Jane Austen’s House, and the National Library of Scotland.

The FNL released a statement saying that “this literary cornucopia will now belong permanently to the public domain in the UK.” Prince Charles, royal patron of the FNL, said, “I can only congratulate the [FNL] chairman, Geordie Greig, and his team for saving the Blavatnik Honresfield Library for the nation”, and that “our literary heritage is our cultural DNA and this preserves it for students, teachers, academics, and ordinary readers in perpetuity.” Dr Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s English Literature and Historical Manuscripts Specialist added that “we were amazed and delighted at the incredible ambition of the FNL’s plan to acquire the whole library, and they deserve every credit for bringing their campaign to a successful conclusion.”

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