x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Britain's home of Brontë loses treasure to the French

A tiny literary treasure from the childhood fantasy world created by the Brontë sisters will soon go on display in a French museum, after being bought for a record price at auction in London.

A tiny literary treasure from the childhood fantasy world created by the Brontë sisters will soon go on display in a French museum, after being bought for a record price at auction in London.

Charlotte Brontë, who later wrote one of the best-known novels in the English language, Jane Eyre, used miniature pages and small handwriting to compose a work she called The Young Men's Magazine, Number 2 when she was 14.

The manuscript is set in "Glass Town", a fictional product of the four Brontë siblings' imaginations, using as its characters a box of toy soldiers their father had bought for Charlotte's brother, Branwell.

The biggest part of the contents is devoted to "A Letter from Lord Charles Wellesley", purporting to be written by a son of the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon's conqueror and a hero of Charlotte's.

One passage is a precursor to the famous scene in Jane Eyre when the insane wife of Mr Rochester takes revenge for being locked in an attic by setting fire to bed curtains in her husband's chamber.

Lord Charles describes an "immense fire" spreading to the bed, reducing its curtains to ashes.

Charlotte Brontë's manuscripts passed on her death in 1855 to her husband, a clergyman, and were sold to a Gérard bibliographer and collector, T J Wise, in 1895 and later still to a collector in Europe.

Wise was subsequently exposed as a literary forger, a detail noted in the pre-sale catalogue, but of which Lhéritier, the founder and president of the Paris museum that has bought the manuscript, admitted he was unaware. There is no suggestion the item sold at auction was other than genuine.

After being kept from general public view, probably throughout its 180 years of existence, the manuscript - just 35 millimetres by 61mm - was put up for sale this month and auctioned at Sotheby's.

To the dismay of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, in the family home in the Yorkshire village of Haworth, its hopes of acquiring the manuscript proved in vain.

It was outbid by La Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits, on the Left Bank of the French capital, which paid a little less than £700,000 (Dh3.35 million), the highest recorded for any manuscript by Charlotte or her sisters, Emily and Anne. The pre-sale guide price was £200-300,000. The Parisian museum intends to put the work on public display from January 30.

It already has one of Europe's finest collections of manuscripts and letters, exhibits ranging from the Second World War ceasefire order signed by the US president, Dwight D Eisenhower, on May 7, 1945, to the writings of such French literary giants as Voltaire, Charles Baudelaire and Emile Zola.

But the management of the English Brontë museum, which attracts 80,000 visitors annually, is unhappy it failed to obtain a document it said "belongs in Haworth".

Andrew McCarthy, the museum's director, describes the manuscript as "unquestionably the most significant to come to light in decades and an important part of our broader literary heritage".

Ann Dinsdale, the collections manager, said: "It was a bitter disappointment for us. It would have been more understandable had it gone to Brussels, where two of the four Charlotte Brontë novels are set. The only consolation is that at least it will be available, at last, for the public to see."

The manuscript had not previously been examined by scholars and the sale to a museum means Brontë specialists will now get access.

Ms Dinsdale said that in time, she hopes the Paris museum would agree to a loan so that the manuscript could also be exhibited in what is known as Brontë country.

Money raised for the auction by the parsonage museum, including a grant from Britain's national heritage memorial fund, was enough to support a "hammer price" of £560,000, and cover the substantial auctioneer's commission.

In the event, the French museum was able to go £20,000 higher, leading to a selling price, with auctioneer's commission, of £690,850.

Mr Lhéritier said the manuscript would go on display at the Paris institute's Brussels offshoot but later be available for exhibition elsewhere, including Yorkshire.

"It is a highly important acquisition for us, but also for Europe," he said, adding that with generous help from France's privately funded Association of Friends of Museums, he had been prepared to bid up to €1 million if necessary.

Peter Selley, the senior director in Sotheby's books and manuscripts department, said: "The record price reflects the huge international interest in Charlotte Brontë's work and Sotheby's was honoured to sell a manuscript of such importance and rarity."

He added that the work offered a "fascinating insight into the development of one of history's great literary minds and reveals the preoccupations which would characterise some of the best known scenes in her adult writing".

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae