Thought lost for almost a century, the Honresfield Library was assembled with passion by self-made Victorian industrialists Alfred and William Law at the turn of the 20th century and has since been maintained with care by generations of the Law family. A unique treasury replete with cornerstones of British culture, its re-emergence after almost 100 years in obscurity marks a defining moment for bibliophiles in what is set to be the one of the great library sales of recent years.
Among the library’s holdings is the most important material by the Brontë sisters to come to light in a generation – unrivalled in importance by any other private collection. The rare pieces open a window onto the short but amazing lives of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and even Branwell Brontë.
Treasures include an extremely rare handwritten copy of Emily’s poems, with revisions from Charlotte (est. £800,000-1,200,000) and the well-loved Brontë family copy of Bewick’s History of British Birds, the book made famous in the opening pages of Jane Eyre (est. £30,000-50,000), brimming with entertaining annotations from their father Patrick. Little-seen letters to and from the likes of fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, Hartley Coleridge (son of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge), George Smith, publisher and vital champion of ‘The Bells’ (The Brontës’ secretive pseudonym), and many more, abound.
Scottish literature is also at the heart of the collection, which includes the most important manuscript by Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, in private hands. A compendium of poems, notes and ideas put together by Burns as an unknown twenty-four year old, First Commonplace Book offers a unique insight into the bard’s mind. It was last sold at Sotheby’s in 1879, for £10. The collection also includes other individual handwritten manuscripts of Burns’s poems and original letters to friends, family, patrons and lovers which build a picture of his colourful life. Romantic writer Sir Walter Scott – the second-most quoted writer in the Oxford English Dictionary after Shakespeare – is also represented, most notably by the complete manuscript for Rob Roy, one of the last remaining manuscripts of a great 19th century novel that is not now in an institution.
Further noteworthy lots include Jane Austen first editions, including Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, a copy of Don Quixote printed in 1620 for Edward Blounte, the publisher famous for the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, and an annotated copy of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poems with pages showing author’s changes from proof printing in his hand. There is hardly an area that is untouched, with Homer, Ovid, the Grimm Brothers, Montaigne, Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, Charles Dickens and Mary Wollstonecraft also making an appearance.
The more than 500 historic manuscripts, exceptional first editions, intimate letters and beautiful bindings will be offered across three auctions at Sotheby’s, commencing this summer (first auction open for bidding from 2 – 13 July 2021). The public will get the chance to view the library, with exhibitions of highlights to take place in London, Edinburgh and New York.