Rare Brontë manuscripts can be viewed online after being saved for the nation

They are at the heart of a treasure trove of literary heritage that was saved for the nation after a £15m fundraising campaign. Now, rare Brontë manuscripts are available for researchers and fans around the world to explore after being digitised online through the University of Leeds Special Collections catalogue.

“We hope it will prompt new kinds of research and engagement with the material,” says Sarah Prescott, a literary archivist for the university’s special collections. “It’s why we’re here is to collect this material and make it as widely available as we can. These items were lost to scholars, lost to research, for so long, and can now be explored in such detail.”

The material is among jewels in the crown of the Blavatnik Honresfield Library, an exceptional literary collection of English and Scottish manuscripts and printed books.

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Formed towards the end of the 19th century by William Law, a Rochdale Mill owner, it includes work at the hands of sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, much of which had been unseen for 80 years, as well as by Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen and Robert Burns.

Charlotte Brontë, Fireside Tales, or the Return to Zamorna, 1836 – 1837. Image credit: Special Collections, University of LeedsCharlotte Brontë, Fireside Tales, or the Return to Zamorna, 1836 – 1837. Image credit: Special Collections, University of Leeds
Charlotte Brontë, Fireside Tales, or the Return to Zamorna, 1836 – 1837. Image credit: Special Collections, University of Leeds

Until last year, the collection had been in private ownership since 1939, largely unexamined by scholars and almost entirely inaccessible to the public. When the library then went up for sale by Sotheby’s, it was feared that the precious manuscripts would fall into private hands again.

The University of Leeds’s Brotherton Library became part of a consortium, headed up by the Friends of National Libraries (FNL), which successfully saved the Honresfield Library for the nation.

The FNL led an extraordinary fundraising campaign, with half of the £15 million purchase price being donated by Sir Leonard Blavatnik. His donation was the largest sum ever to be given by an individual for a literary treasure, and the library was renamed in his honour as a result.

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Material relating to West Yorkshire’s Brontë family was entrusted to the British Library, the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, and the Brotherton Library in a partnership to make the works accessible to audiences across the country.

Leeds’s Brotherton collection was already home to Brontë family manuscripts, particularly from the troubled brother Branwell. “It’s been wonderful to be able to broaden this and add Charlotte Brontë material to our collection as well,” Sarah says.

That material includes several of Charlotte’s famed ‘little books’. During childhood, she and her siblings would craft stories in meticulous detail about fictional kingdoms they had invented. The tales were noted down on miniscule scraps of paper, often with covers made from everyday items. “We have some wonderful examples of the type, tiny little books made on sugar paper,” Sarah says. “They’re stories of the imaginary world that the siblings created. Within the stories you can see Charlotte’s development as a writer...It’s a really fascinating process that they track as well as being such significant items on their own.”

Another key acquisition is a miniature manuscript of Charlotte’s titled Fireside Tales, or the Return to Zamorna. This work, dating to around 1836 – 1837 and written when Charlotte was around 20, demonstrates a new confidence and sophistication, Sarah says, a key stage in her development from a young writer into the fully-fledged author she would become.

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Meanwhile, letters written by Branwell offer new insight into his unfulfilled dreams. He lived a troubled life, with addiction and disappointment, but he harboured artistic ambitions like his sisters.

“There’s a really interesting letter from Branwell because it shows how he was trying to write and trying to make connections as well,” Sarah says. “His attempts at literary work mirror his sisters. But they were published and had immense success whereas Branwell’s work never came to anything.”

Other highlights include include a unique first edition of Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë and Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë, which were published together, under the pseudonyms Ellis and Acton Bell in 1847. The university now holds the only known copy of the publication’s first edition in its original binding, which is known to have frustrated its authors with a number of errors. What also makes the edition particularly special is that it is inscribed by Patrick Brontë, the children’s father, to Martha Brown, the family servant.

As well as the Brontë material, the university has acquired letters written by fellow literary great Elizabeth Gaskell. Elizabeth was a friend and biographer of Charlotte Brontë, and these newly-discovered letters show her experience of Haworth during a visit to the Brontës.

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“Gaskell is important in thinking about how we understand the Brontës,” Sarah says. “Her biography on Charlotte has been acknowledged as one of the great works of non-fiction. She was attempting to defend her friend who had died against accusations of all kinds of unnaturalness and strangeness and she was justifying Charlotte Brontë’s experience and life in the best way she knew how.

"In doing so, Elizabeth Gaskell had created what we call the Brontë myth today - these strange, isolated siblings, and their feckless drunkard brother on the moors with a cruel and distant father.”

The university has been working to digitise its Blavatnik Honresfield Library acquisitions, with much of the collection now available online. “You don’t have to be in Leeds or even in the UK to access this material,” Sarah stresses. “You don’t need any academic background either. It’s for everyone.” Visit explore.library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-explore/729920