Editor’s Note, April 26, 2022: A tiny manuscript by then-teenage author Charlotte Brontë will be returned to the parsonage she lived in her entire life. Friends of the National Libraries (FNL), a British nonprofit, purchased the book, which contains Brontë’s only remaining unpublished poetry, for $1.25 million, and will donate it to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, England, per a museum release.
When the manuscript went on the market, the museum says, the FNL secured the funding in just two weeks. Read on to learn more about why the long-lost book is being heralded as a landmark literary find.
Nearly 200 years ago, a 13-year-old created a tiny book of poems in minuscule, print-like text and sewed it into a miniature book with needle and thread.
That teenage author was Charlotte Brontë, who would later go on to write Jane Eyre and become one of English literature’s most acclaimed novelists. And that manuscript—lost for years and only recently rediscovered inside a 19th-century schoolbook—just sold for $1.25 million, Barrons’ Josh Nathan-Kazis reports.
The buyer’s identity has not yet been disclosed, Manhattan book dealer Henry Wessells tells Barrons. But the fate of the never-before-seen poems inside could depend on who purchased the manuscript.
James Cummins Bookseller partnered with London’s Maggs Bros. for the sale, which took place at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. The public can view the book in New York since yesterday (Brontë’s birthday) through April 24.
The 15-page “A Book of Ryhmes [sic] by Charlotte Brontë, Sold by Nobody, and Printed by Herself” contains 10 never-before-seen poems.
The playing-card-sized book’s tiny handwriting, intended to look like the font of a printing press, is “impossible to read at a quick glance without a magnifying glass,” writes the New York Times’ Jennifer Schuessler.
Its contents illuminate the personality of its young author. In the table of contents, Brontë credits the poems to the imaginary authors “Marquis of Duro & Lord Charles Wellesley,” then disclaims they are “actually written by me.”
On the back of the title page, she apologetically inscribes, “The following are attempts at rhyming of an inferior nature it must be acknowledged but they are nevertheless my best.”
Miniature books played an outsized role in the lives of the author, her brother Branwell, and sisters Emily and Anne. Well-read, precocious and isolated in the small Yorkshire town of Haworth, the children created a “sophisticated imaginary world,” the dealers write in a release—one that preoccupied them into their adulthoods. Charlotte and Branwell imagined Angria, and Emily and Anne created Gondal—worlds of adventure that inspired tiny books, poems and eventually the sister’s novels.
"Just think of the Brontë children telling and writing stories among themselves, learning at home in a remote village, and then blossoming, briefly, to write the books that have been read by millions ever since, and also leaving behind hand-made things such as this manuscript," Wessells tells CNN’s Aya Elamroussi.
The manuscripts fell into private hands and were strewn in various collections around the world after the premature deaths of all four Brontë siblings. In recent years, British cultural institutions and the Haworth Parsonage Museum, which maintains the siblings’ childhood home and the largest library of Brontë materials, have purchased many of the manuscripts for astronomical prices.
In 2011, one of the little books sold for $1.07 million after a bidding war exploded between rival museums, and in 2021 a trove of documents, including a rare manuscript of Emily’s poems, resulted in a landmark campaign to raise more than $20 million to purchase the entire library. The appeal succeeded and last December, the Times reports, the institutions managed to buy the entire collection intact.
The just-sold manuscript was last publicly seen when it was sold for $520 in New York in 1916; it was recently discovered in a private collection inside a letter-sized envelope tucked in the pages of a 19th-century schoolbook.
This 1829 edition is especially valuable. Brontë scholar Claire Harman describes its contents as “the last unread poems by Charlotte Brontë,” according to the Times.
Charlotte Brontë was the last survivor of her literary siblings Emily and Anne, who wrote “Wuthering Heights” and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall;” and Branwell, who struggled with alcoholism and was Charlotte’s childhood co-conspirator. All three of Charlotte’s siblings died of tuberculosis within an eight-month period at around 30 years of age.
Though Charlotte was reported to have succumbed to the same fate six years later, less than a year into her marriage, historians now believe she died from the dehydration and starvation caused by hyperemesis gravidarum, a severe form of morning sickness which famously afflicted Kate Middleton during her pregnancies.
Due to the authors’ short lifespans, any original Brontë manuscript is an incredible find for literary lovers. The titles of the poems in the tiny book have long been known thanks to Brontë’s personal catalog of her works (among them “The Beauty of Nature,” “Song of an Exile,” and “On Seeing the Ruins of the Tower of Babel”).
But the poems have never even been summarized, let alone published. It remains to be seen if the future buyer will decide to make its contents public.