Genuinely good news – a commodity that’s been in short supply this past year – came our way earlier this month, with the announcement (see here, here and here) that an extraordinary collection of books and manuscripts would be acquired by public institutions in Britain instead of dispersed into private hands.
Among the precious items included in the Honresfield Library are two letters written by Jane Austen, including the earliest known to survive – the famous 1796 letter to her sister, Cassandra, in which a twenty-year-old Austen reports that “the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy.” *
And that’s not even the centerpiece of the collection! Scholars are especially excited about the Brontë materials, including Emily’s poetry notebook, with annotations by Charlotte. And then there are manuscripts by Sir Walter Scott, and a commonplace book by Robert Burns, and gorgeous first editions, and, and . . . It’s a treasure trove.
The collection was established in the late nineteenth century by a northern England mill owner named William Law, who lived in a house called Honresfield, not far from the Brontës’ village of Haworth. Six months ago, Sotheby’s announced plans to auction off the library, and the British charity Friends of the National Libraries launched a campaign to save the collection for the nation.
Sotheby’s agreed to delay the auction, and earlier this month FNL announced that it had bought the Honresfield Library with £15 million in donations (about $20 million), half contributed by one person: billionaire Sir Leonard Blavatnik, a businessman and investor who is said to be Britain’s wealthiest man.
Blavatnik, who was born in Ukraine and educated in the United States, has ties to Russian oligarchs and has given money to U.S. politicians of both parties, though he favors Republicans. He’s also donated lavishly to an array of good causes and was knighted in 2017 in acknowledgement of his philanthropy.
The Blavatnik Honresfield Library -- as it’s now going to be known, for obvious reasons -- will be split up among relevant cultural institutions. The Jane Austen letters and first editions will be held jointly by Jane Austen’s House and Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. The exhibit of these new treasures, which will no doubt be coming our way in the not-too-distant future, should give us something to look forward to, as we shake the dust of 2021 off our feet.
* This is Letter #2 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence, but it’s the earliest letter known to survive in manuscript. Letter #1 is known to us because it was reprinted in Lord Brabourne’s 1884 edition of Austen’s letters, but the whereabouts of the physical letter itself are unknown.