The $20 Million Honresfield Library Has Been Saved

- by Michael Stillman

Emily Brontë's manuscript poems (Sotheby's photo).

Britain's Honresfield Library has been saved. It took $20 million in donations to preserve the historic collection, but it will now belong to the British people, rather than being dispersed to private collectors around the world. It will remain in the country though spread out among eight institutions.


The library was formed by the Law brothers, especially William, in the late 19th century. Neither of the brothers ever married. They owned a woolen mill near Rochdale and lived together in a large but plain brick house known as Honresfield nearby. It was only 20 miles from the Brontë family homestead, so it is not surprising that the largest part of the collection relates to that family, especially sisters Charlotte, Anne and Emily. In their brief, star-crossed lives, they wrote some of Britain's most notable literature.


William Law died in 1901. The collection passed to his brother, Alfred Law. Alfred died in 1913, childless, the collection then being left to his nephew, Sir Alfred Law. Sir Alfred was financially well-off so he didn't need to sell off the collection. He did sell some of it but most of the library was held together.


Sir Alfred died in 1939. He too was childless. That is when the library disappeared from public view. It went to family descendants, but exactly whom and where was unknown to the outside world. For 80 years, other than a few select people, no one knew what had happened to the magnificent collection. It finally resurfaced in 2020 when Sotheby's announced they would be holding a three-part sale of the collection.


The first part was scheduled for July. That is when the Friends of the National Libraries asked to intervene. The Friends is a group devoted to preserving Britain's heritage, particularly as captured in its books and manuscripts. They asked if Sotheby's would postpone the sales long enough for them to raise the funds needed to purchase the library outright. Sotheby's, undoubtedly with the approval of the owners, consented to the delay. The price tag to buy the entire collection was £15 million, approximately $20 million in U.S. dollars.


That brings us to today's good news. The Friends of the National Libraries announced that they have raised a little over $20 million, the amount required to purchase the entire collection. They said contributions came from thousands of individual donors, trusts, foundations, and philanthropists. Among those was the Prince of Wales Charitable Foundation, with Prince Charles taking an active role in promoting the cause. A major gift came from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, somewhat in excess of $5 million. However, the largest gift came from billionaire and said to be Britain's wealthiest citizen, Sir Leonard Blavatnik. With the goal halfway reached, he matched those funds, contributing the final $10 million needed to complete the purchase. The FNL said “It is an extraordinary donation, the largest ever given to the UK by an individual for a literary treasure.”


The lead item in the collection is a handwritten manuscript of Emily Brontë's poems. It contains pencil revisions by her sister Charlotte. Emily was the most withdrawn and shy of the sisters, not leaving much evidence of her life behind. That makes this manuscript particularly memorable. Emily published her first and only novel, Wuthering Heights, in 1847, but never saw its success as she died the following year. There are numerous other Brontë family items in the collection, along with material related to Jane Austen, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Burns and Walter Scott. The complete manuscript of Scott's Rob Roy is part of the collection.


The library is not going to one location. Rather, it will be divided among eight collecting institutions. They are: the British Library, the Brontë Parsonage Museum, the Brotherton Library, the Bodleian Library, Jane Austen’s House, the National Library of Scotland, Abbotsford: The Home of Walter Scott, and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.


While the specific members of the Law family who have held the library for the past 80 years were not identified, Sotheby's published a message on their behalf - “We are delighted that the Library is to remain in the UK and as the property of the nation with many of the books and manuscripts returning to their birthplaces for all to see and enjoy.”