A lost trove of works by the Brontë sisters was destined for sale. Then Britain rallied.

LONDON — The story of the discovery and recovery of a treasure chest of letters, diaries, poems and manuscripts, penned in the tiny meticulous handwriting by the beloved, pathfinding, canonical English writers, the incredible Brontë sisters, reads like ... what?

An over-the-top Victorian novel, or a BBC costume drama, loosely based upon it.

The literary trove virtually disappeared from sight. For most of a century, it went dark.

Then it went on sale. And Brontë fans were aghast. And the nation rallied.

Who saved this material, the rarest of the rare, from auction to private collectors?

Why, the richest men in Britain saved it. Sir Leonard Blavatnik, the American-British-Ukrainian petrochemical-finance-entertainment mogul, put up half the money to buy it for the public a few weeks ago - with a little help from Prince Charles and thousands of small donations.

What do Brontë scholars say?

Like lifting a lid in King Tut’s tomb, dear reader.

“It is especially amazing ... as myths have been woven around the material over the decades. Did it really survive, or has it been lost or even destroyed?” said Kathryn Sutherland, a professor at Oxford University.

Sutherland is a consultant to the Friends of the National Libraries, the charity that saved the collection from public auction and dispersal by raising $20 million to buy the whole library, which will soon be placed in institutions like the British Library and literary houses such as the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

“To actually hold a notebook in your hand, as I have, was quite an extraordinary moment,” Sutherland told The Washington Post. “You’re holding something that they held.”

She said, “It’s just sticky with the presence of the writer.”

You’re seeing what?

“You’re seeing, I think, their minds at work,” Sutherland said.

- - -

Google “Brontë” alongside “mania.”

Many hits.

In the Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz observed, “I see no reason not to consider the Brontë cult a religion.” The sisters, she wrote, “turned domestic constraints into grist for brilliant books.”

Long ago, the Brontë sisters - Charlotte, Emily, Anne - became subjects of fascination, prized for their work: Charlotte’s “Jane Eyre,” Emily’s “Wuthering Heights” and Anne’s lesser-known marvel, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” considered by some the first feminist novel.

The sisters are celebrated for their writing - totally - for the creation of the three-dimensional Jane and Catherine and the Byronic bad boys Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff.

But what made them celebrities is their narrative, and these newly emerged papers may open new windows into those lives.

There were five sisters, the two oldest died as children. The three surviving girls were raised in Haworth parsonage, up in north England in the moody Yorkshire moors, with their liberal-minded father, an Anglican priest, and broody brother Branwell (minor poet, not a bad painter, but at the end a gin-soaked opium fiend, who lights his bed on fire).

As teens, the sisters created from scraps of wrapping paper the famous palm-sized “little books.” Their juvenilia - faux magazines, one-act plays and short stories about fantasy worlds and the imagined lives of Branwell’s toy soldiers.

In adulthood, they toiled away as governesses. Only Charlotte later wedded. They wrote poems and hid them from each other.

And one by one, they died young: Anne at 29, Emily at 30, the eldest Charlotte at 38.

In their abbreviated lives, shortened by tuberculosis, they created three classics of English literature, rebooted year after year into movies and serial TV dramas.

Two of the sisters never had a taste of their fame.

- - -

Last year, Sotheby’s announced it was preparing to auction a cache of literary manuscripts and first-edition novels, collected by the bachelor brothers William and Alfred Law, a pair of self-made 19th-century mill owners who amassed the library at their home, Honresfield House, not 20 miles from the parsonage in Haworth, where the Brontës wrote their masterpieces.

“The Victorians loved to collect and lots of Victorians put together libraries, but William Law was exceptional,” said Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s specialist in English literature and historical manuscripts, who prepared the material for sale.

William Law had a discerning and very focused eye - he snapped up a Shakespeare First Folio - but appears to have been especially keen for Brontë material, traveling to Haworth to buy stuff from the neighbors.

He acquired some of the best material from the dealer who bought directly from Charlotte’s widower.

This straight-line provenance - that the manuscripts and letters passed through so few hands - increases not only their value and wow factor, but their preservation.

“The material is in remarkable condition,” Heaton said.

When the Law brothers died, at the beginning of the 20th century, their Honresfield Library was inherited by their nephew, Alfred Law, a well-to-do Conservative Party member of Parliament, who died in 1939. Sir Alfred allowed a handful of scholars to see the library in the 1920s and 1930s. After his death? Almost no one got a look.

Alfred’s heirs knew they had something special, but they requested privacy, and the trove has been mostly unseen for more than 80 years.

The Brontë material includes: 25 letters by Charlotte and seven of her famous “little books,” a manuscript collection of Anne’s poems, and diary notes shared and written by Emily and Anne, on their respective birthdays.

The jewel in the crown is an ordinary ruled notebook, the kind a student would buy in a stationery shop, that contains 31 poems by Emily.

The poems are all known. But here they are each written out in Emily’s own handwriting, and the remarkable thing about the manuscript is that Emily also appears to have penned edits of her poems - and so perhaps did Charlotte.

Emily’s cross-outs appear in ink. Charlotte may have annotated the works in pencil, scholars suspect. More will be known as the cache is pored over by the experts.

At the end of the manuscript are the words: “never was better stuff penned.” Pride of authorship? Or a sister’s loving blurb?

According to the lore, Brontë experts say Emily wrote her poems in secret, but they were discovered by Charlotte, and after some to-and-fro the three sisters in 1846 self-published a slim volume of their poetry, under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, using the first letters of their names but taking on male disguise.

It reportedly only sold two copies.

Rebecca Yorke, the interim director of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, recalled going into the vaults at Sotheby’s on Bond Street in London to look at the collection.

“It was really quite moving,” she said.

Emily’s poems were penned “in a student’s best handwriting.”

“But then to see the edits ... " she said.

“It is the most magical thing,” Heaton said.

- - -

Sotheby’s in May announced its intention to auction off the material in three tranches this summer. Sold to the highest bidder. The sale was expected to be an event.

Literary scholars were appalled. The Brontë Society decried “the very real possibility that this immensely significant collection will be dispersed and disappear into private collections across the globe” and condemned “the narrow commercialisation and privatisation of heritage.”

The society wanted the best Brontë stuff for the Parsonage Museum. “We are determined to save as much as we can, but due to the dramatic financial impact of the pandemic, the timing is unfortunate. While Covid has reinforced the comfort and hope that we find in literature and culture, museum revenue has fallen away to almost nothing and competition for public funds has become fiercer than ever,” the group warned.

The Friends of the National Libraries, whose patron is Prince Charles, stepped in and persuaded Sotheby’s and the sellers to hit pause and give the charity time to raise funds.

The oligarch Blavatnik contributed $10 million, which Friends of the National Libraries on its website called “the largest ever given to the UK by an individual for a literary treasure.”

Prince Charles, in a statement, said the library was saved for Britain. “Our literary heritage is our cultural DNA and this preserves it for students, teachers, academics and ordinary readers in perpetuity,” the Prince of Wales said.

The newly named Blavatnik Honresfield Library contains more than the Brontë treasures. There are also letters written by Jane Austen to her sister, Cassandra, one of which anticipates the end of a love affair; a letter to his father and an early volume of poems in his own hand by Robert Burns; and a travel journal and the complete working manuscript of “Rob Roy” by Sir Walter Scott.

The materials will be given to research libraries in England and Scotland as well as Jane Austen’s House, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Abbotsford: The Home of Walter Scott and the Brontë Parsonage Museum.