University of Oxford: Treasured Jane Austen letters donated to the Bodleian Libraries and Jane Austen’s House

Continued public access to a collection of manuscripts written by Jane Austen has been secured following their donation to the Bodleian Libraries and Jane Austen’s House after they were saved by a unique UK-wide collaboration.

The campaign to acquire 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, the literary charity dedicated to preserving the nation’s written and printed heritage, in partnership with a consortium of research libraries and authors’ houses including the Bodleian Libraries and Jane Austen’s House.

The campaign involved a public appeal to generate donations to save the works from being dispersed through auction sale, and raised more than £15m in donations to secure the collection. The collection includes manuscripts by the Brontës, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott as well as Jane Austen.
The generosity of the principal donor, Sir Leonard Blavatnik, amounted to half of the collections purchase price (£7.5m). As a result of this monumental donation, it will now be known as the Blavatnik Honresfield Library.

Donations also included £4m from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the largest amount ever granted towards an acquisition of literary manuscripts since its formation in 1980.

For future generations

The unprecedented literary acquisition will ensure public access to these treasured manuscripts and protect them from further sale for many decades to come.

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 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 are honoured to have prized items of such a unique, personal nature, to add to our wonderful Austen holdings at the Bodleian Libraries

Richard Ovenden OBE, Bodley’s Librarian

‘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.’

Professor Kathryn Sutherland, Senior Research Fellow at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and Trustee at Jane Austen’s House, added: ‘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.’

Personal letters

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 in Chawton, Hampshire – Austen’s home for the last eight years of her life (from 1809). It was here that Jane’s genius flourished and where she revised, wrote, and had published all her major works: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

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 donated to the Bodleian Libraries and Jane Austen’s House also includes rare first editions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, 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.’

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