Auctions of English literature from Littleborough's Honresfeld library postponed as a UK charity bids to save collection

Date published: 17 June 2021

The auctions of the Honresfeld library books from Littleborough's Honresfeld House have been postponed to allow for a bid from the Friends of the National Libraries.

Last month, it was revealed that over 500 historic manuscripts, exceptional first editions, intimate letters and beautiful bindings would be offered for auction this summer.

The Honresfield library was assembled with passion by self-made Victorian industrialists Alfred and William Law at the turn of the 20th century and has since been maintained with care by generations of the Law family.

Assembled in the golden age of book collecting, the literature found in Honresfeld library tells some of the most fabled stories in history, opening a window onto the short but amazing lives of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and even Branwell Brontë.

Treasures include an extremely rare handwritten copy of Emily’s poems, with revisions from Charlotte and the well-loved Brontë family copy of Bewick’s History of British Birds, the book made famous in the opening pages of Jane Eyre, brimming with entertaining annotations from their father Patrick.

At the library’s heart lies an astonishing set of manuscripts in the hands of the Brontë siblings, much of which has been unseen for 80 years and never properly examined. It includes seven of Charlotte Brontë’s famous ‘little books’, each of which is a work of art; a manuscript collection of poems by Anne Brontë; some 25 letters by Charlotte Brontë; and a small but exquisite autograph manuscript diary note shared by Emily and Anne Brontë.

The absolute jewel of the Brontë collection is Emily Brontë’s holograph notebook of 31 poems, believed by many scholars to have been lost. This poetry notebook carries annotations in Charlotte’s hand. The printed treasures of the sisters include Emily Brontë’s own annotated copy of their first publication, the exceptionally rare Poems of 1846, and fine presentation copies of first editions of their novels in their original cloth bindings.

Jane Austen is represented by two hugely significant letters to her sister Cassandra (only three early such autograph letters are held in any UK national collection, the bulk being in the Morgan Library, New York).

One is a very early letter, written on the eve of a ball where she anticipated the end of a love affair; the second dates from 1813 and discusses the reception of both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.

The collection also includes first editions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in their original condition.

A private library of English literature of such significance has not been placed on the open market for many decades, or is ever likely to appear again.

The Friends of the National Libraries – the only UK charity that focuses on saving written and printed heritage – hope to preserve the entire library as a collection to be allocated to libraries around the UK for the benefit of the public.

Working together with the charity, auction house Sotheby’s has agreed to postpone the start of the auctions to allow negotiations for the entirety of the library to be acquired for the nation.

The Friends of the National Libraries has launched an appeal and is in discussion with private philanthropists and sources of public funds to raise the £15million purchase price.

Charles Sebag-Montefiore, Trustee and Treasurer of The Friends of the National Libraries, said: “FNL is thrilled to be able to take the lead in saving the Honresfeld Library. The Friends of the National Libraries is working with a consortium of institutional funders and individual philanthropists to raise the substantial funds need to secure this extraordinary collection for the benefit of everyone in the UK.

“This is a crucial national endeavour to raise enough funds to keep this unique treasure trove in Britain. This is cultural levelling up, as the items will be spread across the UK from Yorkshire to Edinburgh, Oxford and London.”

Dr Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s English Literature & Historical Manuscripts Specialist, said: “Sotheby’s has a great history of working together with private collectors and institutions and we are pleased to play our part in this potential outcome for this great library.

“This proposed acquisition is a fitting tribute to the Law brothers’ voracious literary interests and their family’s excellent care of this material for over a century. 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.”

Institutions involved include the Bodleian Libraries, the British Library, The National Library of Scotland, Brontë Parsonage Museum, Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Brotherton Library (University of Leeds), Abbotsford (The Home Of Sir Walter Scott) and Jane Austen’s House, among others.

Donations towards the cause can be made here:

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