Two rare letters written by Jane Austen have been acquired after a fundraising effort to save them falling into private hands.
The letters form part of the Honresfield Library, a collection of more than 500 manuscripts and some 1400 printed books including first editions in their original cloth binding.
It encompasses works associated with a host UK literary greats, such as Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and the Brontë sisters.
Austen’s letters and books have been donated to the Bodleian Libraries and Jane Austen’s House in Hampshire by Friends of the National Libraries, a charity dedicated to preserving the nation’s written and printed heritage.
Fewer than 160 letters written by Austen are known to survive, and as such these two items of correspondence have been described as ‘hugely significant’. Both were addressed to her sister Cassandra, showing the author at two very different stages of her life.
In the first, dating from January 1796, Jane is about to ‘flirt her last’ with Tom Lefroy, a young Irish lawyer on holiday in Hampshire for Christmas who caught her eye. It is the earliest known letter to bear her signature.
The second dates from 1813 and reveals an older Austen, now a published author, describing to Cassandra a recent stay in London. She also discusses her ‘pride’ at the success of her two works, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.
Rare first editions of many of her other novels, including Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion, all in their original condition, are also included in the collection.
The two letters will join 14 others already owned by Jane Austen’s House, the author’s home for the last eight years of her life and the place where she wrote several of her novels.
In their campaign, the Friends of the National Libraries, in partnership with a consortium of research libraries and authors’ houses, appealed for public donations in order to prevent the Honresfield Library being dispersed through auction sales.
The campaign ultimately raised more than £15m in donations, including £4m from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. The principle private donor was Sir Leonard Blavatnik, who donated half the collection’s purchase price.
Each manuscript and book from the Library will be donated by the Friends of the National Libraries to institutions across the UK, so that everyone may access them.
Commenting on the news, Richard Ovenden OBE, Bodley’s Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries, said: ‘Jane Austen is a literary marvel, beloved by her devoted readers 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,’ he added.
You can find out more about the contents of the Blavatnik Honresfield Library here: https://www.fnl.org.uk/pages/honresfield.