What they saw in the second of six “little books” handwritten by the 14-year-old Charlotte Brontë’ was nothing less than a matchbox-sized masterpiece.
Within its 20 pages had been etched three entire short stories which not only foreshadowed Jane Eyre but also threw open a window into the soul of a young girl yearning for a world beyond the Yorkshire moors.
It was to the parsonage at Haworth, where the words were laid down in 1830, that the auctioneer’s courier delivered the little volume and where tomorrow, it will go on public view for the first time. The Brontë Society paid €600,000 for it in November, following a public appeal for funds. Some £85,000 from more than 1,000 supporters added to the donations from trusts and public funding bodies.
Ann Dinsdale, principal curator at the parsonage museum, said she had been there for 30 years and had seen nothing to match the emotion its arrival induced.
“We had a welcome committee of staff who’d made a point of being in the museum to see it arrive. It was like a historic occasion,” she said.
To actually see it here was extraordinary, and incredibly moving. It was the highlight of my career.
“Some of us felt a little tearful. So much effort and passion had gone into bringing it to Haworth and we’d worked so long and so hard to make it happen.
“It seemed extraordinary that there had been this huge interest in such a tiny item.”
The book will be displayed alongside the four others known to exist. Of the remaining volume, the fifth, nothing has been seen since the 1930s.
But the second is potentially the most fascinating, for although the contents of all six were catalogued and transcribed, it has never been published or made available.
“It’s hugely important in academic terms because it adds so much to our knowledge of Charlotte’s development as a writer,” Ms Dinsdale said.
“The three pieces of prose make it absolutely clear that she had an incredible imagination.”
One of the short stories, of just over 1,000 words, contains some of the flavour of her masterwork of 17 years later. A murderer is haunted by his victims, who manifest themselves in the form of a burning bed.
Another is a fantasy about fine dining and aristocratic living, which, said Ms Dinsdale, reads as “almost an antidote to domestic life at Haworth”.
“You get the feeling that she must have found life at the parsonage lacklustre,” said the curator.
At the front is the book is a table of contents and at the back, made-up advertisements betraying wild flights of fancy about a 100-year-old cow being put on show.
The book had been in the hands of collectors for years, and the final layer of protective packaging was an exquisite leather binder made for it by a former owner.
The Brontë Society had coveted it for years but had been outbid by an investor at a previous auction. With an estimate by the Drouot auction house of up to €800,000, its purchase this time was far from assured.
But Ms Dinsdale said it had been placed “back where it belonged” and where it could inspire “generation upon generation, enriching lives far beyond the walls where it was originally created”.
Kitty Wright, executive director of the Brontë Society, added: “We have been truly overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from people from all over the world backing our campaign.