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UK museums and libraries join forces to save ‘astonishing’ lost library from private buyers

Friends of the National Libraries aims to raise £15m to save "once in a generation" library from falling into private hands

The Brontë family copy of Thomas Bewick’s “A History of British Birds. Photograph: Sotheby’s

A huge consortium of libraries and museums across the UK have come together in an “unprecedented” attempt to raise £15m to save an “astonishingly important” collection of literary manuscripts for the nation.

This consortium includes the likes of the British Library and the library of Scotland Museum and was announced last month after the lost Honresfield library was put up for auction at Sotheby’s. This library was put together by industrialists William and Alfred Law in the early 1900’s and has been inaccessible since 1939. When it was announced that this literary jewel would be going on sale experts warned that action needed to be taken to prevent it being sold off piece by piece to private individuals.

The initiative to purchase these manuscripts on behalf of the nation is being led by the charity Friends of the National Libraries (FNL), which includes institutes such at the British Library, the Bodleian, the National Library of Scotland, the Brontë Parsonage Museum and many other smaller libraries and museums.

The FNL is currently in discussions with both private philanthropists and public funders as it desperatly seeks to raise the £15m it believes would be necessary to secure the entirety of the Honresfield library. It will also be launching a crowdfunding appeal.

The Honresfield library contains a veritable treasure trove of rare items, including a handwritten manuscript of Emily Brontë’s poems, once thought by experts to have been lost to time. It was also revealed on Thursday that the collection includes two “hugely significant” letters written by Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, one of which deals with the reception to her novels Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility. The other letter meanwhile was written on the eve of a ball as Austen humorously anticipates the end of a love affair: “At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow at the melancholy idea.”

The complete manuscript for Rob Roy. Photograph: Sotheby’s

All in all the collection contains more than 500 manuscripts, first edition novels and letters, including the working manuscript of Sir Walter Scott’s famous novel Rob Roy.

While the FNL attempts to raise the funds the vendors and Sotheby’s have graciously agreed to postpone the auction for the first part of the library which had been due to take place in July. The FNL has stated that once the library is purchased individual items will be passed to the appropriate institute across the UK.

“Once in a generation, a collection of books and manuscripts appears from almost nowhere that is met with a mixture of awe and stunned silence, followed by concerted action to bring it into public ownership,” said John Scally, chief executive of the National Library of Scotland. “The UK-wide consortium is determined to raise the funds to ensure we can save the Honresfield library for everyone to share and enjoy.”

Charles Sebag-Montefiore, trustee and treasurer of FNL, described the charity’s plans as “a crucial national endeavour to raise enough funds to keep this unique treasure trove in Britain”.

The alliance of libraries and museums was first formed after the Brontë Society raised a call to action about the upcoming sale, describing the auction as a “calculated act of heritage dispersal”. As more institutions got involved, the FNL was approached to spearhead the campaign.

Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s historical manuscripts specialist, said the auction house was “pleased to play our part in this potential outcome for this great library”.

“This proposed acquisition is a fitting tribute to the Law brothers’ voracious literary interests and their family’s excellent care of this material for over a century. The unprecedented initiative is testament to the continued power of literature to inspire the public so many years after these writers first put pen to paper,” he added.

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