It is a scenario enacted in the hopeful fantasies of classic-car enthusiasts, antiques dealers, auctioneers, and collectors everywhere. You fall into conversation with a little old lady who is interested to hear that you like vintage cars.
“Well, I’ve got my father’s old jalopy in a barn,” she says. “He never drove the thing. Don’t suppose you could take it away?”
Knowing it will be some rusting wreck of no value, you nonetheless agree to take a look. Maybe you can cannibalize the leather and switchgear, or re-purpose the headlamps as gatepost ornaments. You shoo away the chickens and pull back the muck-befouled tarpaulin to reveal … a concours-condition Bugatti Royale! Or it’s a Louis Quinze escritoire! It’s the lost Titian! A Qianlong vase! Jimi’s 1960 Stratocaster!
Such things never happen. Of course they don’t. They are urban myths, material for Roald Dahl short stories and silly jokes. (“What you’ve got there, sir, is a Rembrandt and a Stradivarius. Trouble is, Stradivarius was a useless painter and Rembrandt made terrible violins … der-dan der-dan tish! I thank you.”)
Yet they do happen. And this year one of the most spectacular finds ever came to light: the Honresfield Library, a discovery that has set the world of books aquiver.
The story in brief: over their lifetimes, a pair of childless, mid–19th century North Country millowner brothers named William and Alfred Law assembled, with knowledge and discernment, a private collection of books and manuscripts. This library passed to successive descendants for a century, neither supplemented, catalogued, nor open to visitation by academics or enthusiasts—save on a few occasions which served only to enhance the legend of the collection’s existence. And now the entirety is for sale at Sotheby’s in London.
Very little is known about the Laws, but their taste and judgment give the lie to that snooty stereotype—vented if not invented by Dickens in Hard Times—of the hard-nosed industrialist for whom art and books are nowt but fancy folderols for fops and fools.
This year one of the most spectacular finds ever came to light: the Honresfield Library, a discovery that has set the world of books aquiver.
This untouched Miss Havisham of a collection includes Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives (the very edition Shakespeare would have used for his Roman plays), first printings in English of the essays of Montaigne and Bacon, the 1798 Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the Chapman translation of Homer that so overwhelmed Keats, novels by Dickens in their original serialized form, exquisitely pristine first editions of works by Dr. Johnson, Emerson, Sterne, Smollett, Tennyson, Milton, Walpole, Webster, and more. Foundational treasures, any one of which a librarian or collector would give a kidney to own.
But the true glories are found in the handwritten items: letters and holographs that bring us close to some of the most influential writers in the language. There is a wealth of Robert Burns material, such as his prized first commonplace book. Remarkable Walter Scott riches include the working manuscript of Rob Roy and a letter to publisher John Murray enclosing Scott’s celebrated review of Jane Austen’s Emma, a first-edition copy of which sits in the library, too, alongside firsts of Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. While those alone are enough to glorify any library, it is Austen’s sparkling, gossipy letters to her sister, Cassandra, on which Janeites will fall like lions upon an antelope.
But what most catches the eyes is the extraordinary trove of Brontëana. There are seven exquisitely produced miniature books written, illustrated, and bound by the teenage Charlotte, chronicling adventures in her imagined world of Glass Town. We have always known that, after Emily’s death, Charlotte found a notebook of her younger sister’s poetry, but it has been assumed that the verses themselves were irretrievably lost. Yet now here that notebook is, filled with 31 Emily Brontë poems in her own hand for academics and enthusiasts to pore and purr over.
But will those academics purr? Finds of this quality are becoming rarer and rarer. Many believe this will be the last of its kind. There are billionaire collectors out there ready to fight like wild dogs to drag such treasures to their kennels. There is a real danger that the collection could be disintegrated and spread around the world, locked away in private vaults and vitrines, closed to public view.
Sotheby’s has agreed to hold off the sale until November, allowing a new-forged and unprecedented consortium of British libraries (Oxford’s Bodleian; the British Library; the Brotherton, in Leeds; the National Library of Scotland; inter alia) time to raise the needful, a gulp-inducing $21 million. Their plan is to keep the collection whole in name and substance, but collaborating and sharing elements with their most natural homes. To Abbotsford, the vast mansion Sir Walter built that now serves as the Scott museum; to Jane Austen’s House, in Hampshire; to the Haworth Brontë Parsonage Museum; to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, in Alloway. Public access remains the key. The palpable physicality of the handwritten is especially to be prized in our Digital Age. You can almost hear the scratch of pens racing across the paper in these astonishing diaries, letters, and notebooks.
Thirty-one Emily Brontë poems in her own hand for academics and enthusiasts to pore and purr over.
The rich have always collected for their own pleasure and prestige, but a large enough proportion of them has also been ready to help museums, libraries, and galleries, too. Their names live on in wings and annexes and on donor walls, carved in gold letters. The InsertYourNameHere Library stands ready to glorify a new benefactor.
What is the current state of philanthropic giving? Do the tech titans, oligarchs, and hedge-funders represent a new Medici class of grand patrons ready to commission, preserve, and rescue? Or do populism and anti-elitism combine with woke-ism, or whatever the hell we want to call it, to call time on High Art altogether? First editions of Ian Fleming and J. K. Rowling already go for more money than first editions by Gibbon or Thackeray. Harold Bloom and F. R. Leavis are dead. The Great Tradition that they championed doesn’t mean much to universities, let alone the general public. The artists and writers of the bad old days might soon be toppled from their podiums.
There is a real danger that the collection could be disintegrated and spread around the world, locked away in private vaults and vitrines, closed to public view.
Yet hold awhile. Jane Austen continues to grow as (please don’t hit me) a global brand. The Brontës inspire more and more generations around the world. Scott has always been venerated on the Continent, and especially in this year of the 250th anniversary of his birth his reputation is resurgent in his homeland, the Scotland whose identity he more or less invented. To the Scots, Rabbie Burns is more than a national bard; he is a personal friend.
I don’t know if it is feasible to issue companion NFTs—those digital tokens that have baffled, bemused, and bothered us poor mortals since they burst into the world a year or so ago. Maybe then individual purchasers could own items in electronic-asset form, while the physical originals are held and distributed around the British Isles as described. That way private collectors and the public good are both served. Am I mad to suggest such a thing? Perhaps it reveals my fundamental blockchain ignorance, a failure of understanding that I surely share with 99.5 people in every 100.
Reader, as Charlotte B. liked to apostrophize, perhaps you can help?
Click here to help the campaign to save Honresfield Library
Stephen Fry is a British writer, filmmaker, comedian, and actor who has played Jeeves and Oscar Wilde and hosted the British quiz show QI.
© Stephen Fry