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Brontë fans’ push to save a rare library has worked—with help from Britain’s richest man.

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December 16, 2021, 1:27pm

Here’s an uplifting update on one of our biggest literary stories of the year: a collection of rare manuscripts has been saved from disappearing from view by the public, libraries, museums and organizations banding together—and, of course, the richest man in Britain helped as well.

The Honresfield Library, collected and kept in the 1800s by Alfred and William Law, contains a collection of rare Brontë-affiliated manuscripts, most notably a volume of 31 handwritten poems by Emily Brontë, as well as other manuscripts and letters by Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and Jane Austen. The materials are incredibly rare and useful to scholars, but after Alfred’s nephew, inheritor of the library, died, the collection disappeared from public view—until this May, when Sotheby’s announced it would be auctioning off the library’s contents.

Academics’ and Brontë fans’ excitement at learning the Honresfield Library still existed turned to concern knowing these important documents would be sold right back into private collections, where the public once again couldn’t access them. Thus, eight groups—the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford, the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds, and museums dedicated to Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Robert Burns and the Brontës—united to raise $21 million to purchase and preserve the Honresfield Library for the public, led by Friends of the National Libraries.

The campaign garnered significant publicity, including a Prince Charles shout-out in the Daily Mail, and now, the manuscripts have been officially saved for the nation: Friends of the National Libraries has raised over £15m to save the library. Half that sum was donated by Sir Leonard Blavatnik, Britain’s richest man, who matched the sum raised by Friends of the National Libraries and the consortium institutions, becoming the largest donation ever given by an individual to the UK for a literary treasure. It was a group effort, though; the National Heritage Memorial Fund donated £4m, the most they have ever given for an acquisition of literary manuscripts, and the rest was raised through donations by organizations (such as Jane Austen’s House in Chawton and the home of Walter Scott in Melrose), museums and libraries, and thousands of individual donations, which made up just under £150,000.

Now, the library will be called the Blavatnik Honresfield Library, and the manuscripts and books will be donated to institutions around the UK, “ensuring that as many people as possible can enjoy this treasure trove of English and Scottish literature.”

“There has been unprecedented public interest in this collection of manuscripts and books hidden for almost a century,” Geordie Greig, chairman of Friends of the National Libraries, said in a statement. “Rescuing it has seemed a little like opening an Egyptian tomb to see for the first time ancient texts and treasures which are now saved in perpetuity for students, scholars and book-lovers.”

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