Rare and precious Austen letters acquired as part of unique UK-wide collaboration

Rare and precious Jane Austen letters acquired as part of unique UK-wide collaboration.

A collection of manuscripts written by Jane Austen, which were this week saved in an unprecedented literary acquisition, has been donated to Jane Austen’s House and the Bodleian Libraries by Friends of the National Libraries, the literary charity dedicated to preserving the nation’s written and printed heritage.

The campaign to save the Honresfield Library, a private collection of manuscripts and printed books associated with some of the greatest writers in English Literature was led by Friends of the National Libraries, in partnership with a consortium of research libraries and authors’ houses, including Jane Austen’s House and The Bodleian Libraries, amongst others. The campaign involved an intensive public appeal to generate donations to save the works from being dispersed through auction sale. It reached a satisfying conclusion this week, having raised more than £15 million in donations to secure the collections, including £7.5m from a principal donor, Sir Leonard Blavatnik, whose generosity amounted to half of the collection’s purchase price. The acquisition will ensure public access to these treasured manuscripts and protect them from further sale for many decades to come. As a result of this monumental donation, it will now be known as the Blavatnik Honresfield Library.

The Jane Austen collection includes two hugely significant personal letters. The autograph manuscripts of fewer than 160 letters by Jane Austen are known to survive, and these two letters will join 14 others already owned by Jane Austen’s House. The letters confirm Jane Austen’s House as one of the world’s most significant repositories of Austen material and the only place where her domestic art can be viewed in its original context.

The two letters in the Blavatnik Honresfield Library offer fascinating glimpses into Austen’s personal and creative life. Both were written to Jane Austen’s beloved sister Cassandra, and they show her at two very different stages of life. In the first, from January 1796, Jane is about to ‘flirt her last’ with Tom Lefroy, the young Irish lawyer on holiday in Hampshire for Christmas who has caught her fancy. This is also the earliest known surviving letter to hold Austen’s signature.

The second letter dates from 1813 and sees an older Austen, now the published author of two well-received novels, enjoying a stay in London, and updating Cassandra with the latest gossip. In this long letter we see her pride in the reception of two of her best-loved novels, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. The collection also includes rare first editions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in their original condition.

Lizzie Dunford, Director of Jane Austen’s House, said: ‘It has been a privilege for Jane Austen’s House to be a part of this truly ground-breaking campaign, spearheaded by inspirational individuals, to save these extraordinary literary treasures for the nation. Jane Austen’s House is looking forward to working with the Bodleian Libraries to preserve and share with the public these two extraordinary letters.’

Professor Kathryn Sutherland, Senior Research Fellow, St Anne’s College, Oxford, and Trustee at Jane Austen’s House, said: ‘I am proud to have been part of the campaign, under the visionary leadership of the Friends of the National Libraries, to save this extraordinary collection of priceless manuscripts and printed books for public enjoyment. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of what the FNL have achieved and the significance of this moment for our shared literary heritage. Held between Jane Austen’s House and the Bodleian Libraries, the Austen letters from the Blavatnik Honresfield Library will enrich two of the world’s major collections of Austen manuscripts and artefacts ensuring their accessibility to scholars and enthusiasts for generations to come.’

Dr Richard Ovenden OBE, Bodley’s Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford said: ‘I am delighted to have been able to play a role in such an important literary acquisition – one that will secure literary treasures by some of the greatest writers from these islands for future generations. We offer huge thanks to Friends of the National Libraries for the donation. Jane Austen is a literary marvel, beloved by fans all over the world and we are honoured to have prized items of such a unique, personal nature, to add to our wonderful Austen holdings at the Bodleian Libraries. We look forward to building on existing links with Jane Austen’s House and to share them with scholars and the wider public, for many years to come.’