The 26-bedroom mock-Gothic pile known as Honresfeld House was once home to the Law brothers, self-made cotton magnates who never married and instead devoted their lives to the honourable Victorian pursuits of industry and the arts. Their collection of original works by the Brontë sisters and Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, has achieved almost mythical status amongst the literati – not least because nothing has been seen of it for nearly a century.
But that changed today when the auctioneer Sotheby’s announced that some 500 of the texts they amassed would go under the hammer in the course of the next year.
They include a rare, handwritten manuscript of Emily Brontë’s poems, estimated to be worth between £800,000 and £1.2m, and described by the auctioneer as “the most important Brontë material to come to light in a generation, unrivalled in importance by any private library in the world”.
The Honresfeld Collection also takes in little-seen family letters, books, drawings and manuscripts, as well as two of the most significant Scottish manuscripts remaining in private hands – Walter Scott’s Rob Roy and Burns’s First Commonplace book, put together when he was an unknown 24-year-old and last sold at Sotheby’s in 1879.
But it is Emily’s manuscript that has set the literary world abuzz.
“This is incredibly rare as almost nothing of Emily’s survived,” said Sotheby’s. “She essentially wrote Wuthering Heights and then parted the world without a trace. There aren’t even really any letters out there by her, as she had no one to correspond with.”
The Brontë Society – which two years ago raised £85,000 from public donations towards the purchase at auction of one of Charlotte Brontë’s matchbox-sized “little books” of handwritten stories – said Emily’s manuscript also belonged at the Haworth Parsonage that was the family’s home. But it acknowledged that the timing of the sale was “unfortunate”.
“We are faced with the very real possibility that this immensely significant collection will be dispersed and disappear into private collections across the globe,” it said in a statement to rally support.
“We need to look beyond the narrow commercialisation and privatisation of heritage and work together to protect and share what we all value,” it went on. But it added that revenue from its Parsonage museum had “fallen away to almost nothing” during the pandemic and that “competition for public funds has become fiercer than ever”.
The story of the collection’s safekeeping is as remarkable as any in literature. It was in 1879 that Alfred and William Law built Honresfeld House in Littleborough on the outskirts of Rochdale, where their mill chimney was one of dozens that made up the landscape.
They mingled in a world of newly-rich industrialists and bankers, eager to display their wealth and taste, and to assume the social status that a book collection would afford.
But Dr Gabriel Heaton, English literature specialist at Sotheby’s, said the depth and style of their purchases marked them out as collectors of unusual sophistication, with their choice of Brontë manuscripts perhaps influenced by the Pennine landscape they shared.
William, who died in 1901, curated the collection, and when Alfred died 12 years later, his heir was his nephew, the Conservative MP Sir Alfred Law.
“It meant that Honresfeld had one owner continuously from 1913, a period during which many other families, houses, and libraries faced unexpected estate taxes when recent heirs were killed in the trenches or died young of war injuries,” Dr Heaton said.
“However, like his uncles, Sir Alfred Law never married, and since his death in November 1939, people lost trace of the library completely.”
As the treasures were passed down through the extended family, Honresfeld House was turned over for use as a Leonard Cheshire care home, and when that closed in 2016 it fell into disrepair. Three years ago, thieves who stripped out parts of the roof caused damage estimated at £250,000.
Dr Heaton said the collection once housed there “paints a unique portrait of the passions of one of the greatest and least-known collecting families from a golden age of book collecting”.
He added: “When the library went missing from public view in the 1930s, many assumed it had disappeared, and to now play a role in bringing it to a wider audience is a true career highlight.”
Emily Brontë’s handwritten manuscript of her poems, with revisions from sister Charlotte, is the crown jewel of the collection, and includes her best-known verse, No Coward Soul Is Mine
Ann Dinsdale, principal curator at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, said: “We’ve known about the Law collection since it sort of disappeared from view in the 1930s. And if there was one Brontë item. I could have in our collection, this is it.
“The worry now is that it will disappear back into a private collection overseas and be lost forever. And I really feel it does belong in the UK – if not in Haworth then in the British Library.”
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