A tiny book, smaller than a playing card and containing 10 tantalisingly unpublished poems, is returning home to the West Yorkshire parsonage where it was lovingly written in 1829 by the 13-year-old Charlotte Brontë.
Thought lost, it was bought in New York for $1.25m (£1m) with Haworth in mind and given it measures just 10cm by 6cm, it is probably, centimetre for centimetre, the most valuable literary manuscript ever sold.
Its artistic value is also through the roof. “It is phenomenal really,” said Ann Dinsdale, principal curator of the Brontë Parsonage Museum. “I can’t quite believe it. I haven’t been able to take it all in yet.”
The manuscript is one of the “little books” written when Charlotte and her siblings Emily, Anne and Branwell were children. Often written for Branwell’s toy soldiers, the manuscripts shine light on just how creative and astoundingly talented the four of them were.
Titled “A Book of Ryhmes [sic] by Charlotte Brontë, Sold by Nobody and Printed by Herself” it is a collection of 10 poems she wrote aged 13.
“She’s known for her novels but initially Charlotte wanted to be a poet,” said Dinsdale. “We know that she sent samples of her poetry to the poet laureate and she told him of her ambition to be a poet, which is quite something.”
The poet laureate was Robert Southey who shamefully advised her against a literary career. “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: and it ought not to be,” he wrote.
The titles of the poems have been known to experts and are a long way from an isolated parsonage and the windswept moors of Yorkshire. They include On Seeing the Ruins of the Tower of Babel, Songs of an Exile and Meditations While Journeying in a Canadian Forest.
Astonishingly, the poems themselves have never been published, photographed, transcribed or even summarised.
A Book of Ryhmes is the last of more than two dozen miniature books created by Charlotte to remain in private hands. It was last seen at auction in New York in 1916 where it was sold for $520. It then disappeared with its whereabouts, or survival, unknown until now.
When it emerged that the book would be a star of last weekend’s New York International Antiquarian book fair, the UK’s leading literary heritage charity sprang into action.
The Friends of the National Libraries (FNL) was founded in 1931 to help save the UK’s written and printed history. One of its biggest successes was last year raising £15m to save the Honresfield Library, an unprecedented treasure trove of literary heritage and wonders that includes a letter in which Jane Austen anticipates the end of a love affair.
Geordie Greig, the chair of FNL, said they had only two weeks to raise the money to buy the book, which had been a daunting task.
“Saving Charlotte Brontë’s little book is a giant gain for Britain,” he said. “To return this literary treasure to the Brontë Parsonage where it was written is important for scholars and also students studying one of our greatest women writers.”
Among the benefactors giving money to buy the book are the estate of TS Eliot and the Garfield Weston Foundation.
The manuscript is being donated to the Brontë Society whose museum in Haworth has the largest collection of Brontë manuscripts in the world. It already has nine little books, soon to be joined by seven more from the Honresfield Library.
Dinsdale said it was likely all four Brontës made little books or magazines when they were children, although none survive by Anne or Emily.
The four siblings created a sophisticated imaginary world with a nation called Angria and a city called Glass Town, filled with their childhood heroes. From there came some of the greatest of all novels, none more so than Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights.
Dinsdale said it was absolutely thrilling to be the recipients of such an “extraordinary and unexpected” donation.
“It is always emotional when an item belonging to the Brontë family is returned home and this final little book coming back to the place it was written when it had been thought lost is very special for us.”