Sale of Honresfield Library, Including Major Brontë Sisters Material, Put on Hold

- by Michael Stillman


Notes by Emily and Anne Brontë (Sotheby's photo).

What Sotheby's said would be one of the great library sales of recent years has been called off, and for the noblest of reasons. The sale was of the Honresfield Library, one of the greatest British private libraries, though lost for almost a century. There are items of monumental literary importance in the library. However, Sotheby's put the sale on hold at the request of a consortium of British institutions who hope to raise the funds to buy the library outright and preserve it at home for the British nation.


Among the items planned to be auctioned were what Sotheby's described as “the most important material by the Brontë sisters to come to light in a generation – unrivalled in importance by any other private collection.” Among those were an extremely rare copy of Emily's poems in her hand, with revisions by Charlotte. Sotheby's estimated they would sell for £800,000-£1,200,000 (approximately US $1,100,000-$1,650,000). Other Brontë items included are the family copy of Bewick's History of British Birds (noted in the opening pages of Jane Eyre), replete with annotations from the sisters' father Patrick. Among them are “All kinds of pigeons are good eating…” and “The use of peacocks for food is not forbidden in the Law of Moses.” Moses missed that one. To Irish author Julia Kavanagh he writes, “Jane Eyre is but a defective production, yet I daresay whatever merit it has will be appreciated by you.” Ouch. Several books inscribed by Patrick are included in the collection.


There are also letters from Elizabeth Gaskell, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's son, Hartley, and their publisher when the sisters wrote under the last name “Bell,” George Smith. There are first editions of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. There are letters from Charlotte to friends and publisher Smith and letters from the only Brontë son, Branwell. He died in 1848 from drugs and alcohol, the same year as the Brontë sisters began dying off. There are also some of Charlotte's drawings, including one of their aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, and some notes passed between Anne and Emily.


There is way more than just the Brontë material in the Honresfield Library. Other items include several Jane Austen first editions, the complete manuscript for Walter Scott's novel Rob Roy, an annotated copy of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poems showing his changes. There is what Sotheby's calls “the most important manuscript by Robert Burns,” along with some of his personal letters. There are over 500 historic manuscripts, personal letters, first editions, and bindings in all.


The Honresfield Library was assembled at the turn of the century by woolen mill owners and brothers William and Alfred Law. The unmarried Law brothers lived at Honresfield, a large plain brick house near their factory in Rochdale. It was only 20 miles from the Brontë homestead. William died in 1901, Alfred in 1913, at which time Honresfield and its library passed to their nephew, Sir Alfred Law. He was well-off so he kept much of the library together, though he did reduce it materially in size with some important sales. He, too, died unmarried, in 1939, and after that, the library disappeared from public view. However, it appears some further items were sold after that date, and at least some of the library remained in further Law heirs' hands for some number of years.1 Honresfield itself was sold in 1959 and became a home for the disabled. The library was gone by then.


When the sale was announced, the Brontë Society sprang into action to save the library. They joined with the Friends of National Libraries, the Bodleian Library, National Library of Scotland, and Jane Austen's House to raise the necessary funds to buy it whole. The price tag is hefty - £15,000,000 (US $20,750,000), so it will take a lot of fundraising but they are hopeful. The collection would then be spread around the institutions so they could put it on display. They expressed their deep appreciation to Sotheby's for putting the auction on hold while they raise funds so that the library can be preserved for the British people.

1. A Lost Collection of Robert Burns Manuscripts: Sir Alfred Law, Davidson Cook, and the Honresfield Collection, by Patrick G. Scott, 2015.