The Bodleian Libraries announced on 17th January that they have received a donation of original Jane Austen manuscripts to be owned jointly and equally with Jane Austen’s House in Cawton.
The manuscripts consist of two letters dating from two periods of the author’s life. In the first, Austen is 20 years old and preparing for a ball, in the second she is 37 and at the height of her literary career. As Kathryn Sutherland, Emeritus Professor of English at St Anne’s College, told The Oxford Blue, the letters are “filled with details both personal and creative” and contain “more meanings than their words alone can express”.
The letters join other Austen manuscripts already held by the University, including the unfinished draft of The Watsons, the earliest surviving manuscript of a novel by Austen, and a number of her letters.
The letters were acquired as part of a campaign by the Friends of the National Libraries (FNL) to save the Honresfield Library, now the Blavatnik Honresfield Library, from auction. The private library was founded at the end of the 19th century by mill owners Alfred and William Law, who had a passion for collecting literature. However, the library disappeared from public view in 1939 after the death of the Law brothers’ nephew Alfred Law, becoming inaccessible to the public and academics. When the sale of the library was announced in May 2021, FNL convinced Sotheby’s to postpone the sale to give them an opportunity to purchase the collection.
FNL was able to raise over £15 million to purchase the entire collection, including a £7 million donation from Leonard Blavatnik. The Blavatnik Honresfield Library now joins the Blavatnik School of Government in being named after the billionaire, who has a net worth of over $36 billion.
FNL has decided to donate every manuscript and printed book from the Blavatnik Honresfield Library to libraries and writers’ houses across the UK. As well as Austen’s manuscripts, this includes the works of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, which have been donated to institutions including The British Library, The Brotherton Library, and the Brontë Parsonage Museum. FNL also acquired the works of Robert Burns, which have been donated to the National Library of Scotland and The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, as well as the manuscripts of Sir Walter Scott.
In their press release, FNL stated: “The benefits of this endeavour are manifold. The literary cornucopia will now belong permanently to the public domain in the UK. The manuscripts and printed books which have been inaccessible for some 80 years, will now all be available for study by scholars, researchers, visitors and everyone.”
In a comment to The Blue, Richard Ovenden OBE, Bodley’s Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries, echoed these sentiments, saying: “The Jane Austen manuscripts from the Honresfield Library have been in a private collection for more than a century. Their allocation to the Bodleian and to Jane Austen’s House allows them to be made available for students, scholars and the general public for the first time. The Bodleian’s holdings of Austen manuscripts is already strong, and they make it possible for us to deepen our collaboration with Jane Austen’s House. We look forward to making them available later this year.”
The letters will be exhibited in Oxford and Chawton later this year.