History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

04 December 2009

Bronte on the block

I wrote yesterday at the Riskies about the opportunity to view Dickens' original manuscript of A Christmas Carol online and that got me thinking about ownership of items; and also Kathryn's post yesterday in which she stated:

I am glad that Ms. Austen left no DNA behind.

Don't count on it. It seems that all the time possessions, papers and other artefacts come out of the woodwork as collections are sold or treasures unearthed in attics. How long before someone finds Jane Austen's hairbrush?

But today I'm cheering on the Bronte Parsonage Museum, because it's the day when Christies of NY is holding an auction of items from the William E. Self Library which includes a first edition of Wuthering Heights, owned by her sister Charlotte and with Charlotte's pencil notes for a second edition. The Museum naturally feels that the book, and the other Bronte items should be in the museum. I agree--I think it would be a tragedy if these items disappeared into the hands of a private collector--and I'm wishing them luck.

Also coming up this month, yet more Bronte items on sale through Sotheby's in London on December 17, when Charlotte's writing desk and Emily's drawing box will go on the block. (Photos courtesy of Sotheby's.)

Sotheby's is a fantastic research site, as well as a massive timesuck, by the way. The same auction also includes the only known letter from Byron to Stendhal, in which Byron defends the character of Sir Walter Scott:

I have known Walter Scott, long and well, and in occasional situations which call forth the real character - and I can assure you that his character is worthy of admiration, that of all men he is the most open, the most honourable - the most amiable...

The letter is dated May 29, 1823 when Byron was preparing to leave for Greece.

There's also a letter from Shelley regarding the publication of Frankenstein, in which he represents a "friend" who is not available to discuss the manuscript or terms of publication, written on August 22, 1817 when Shelley and Mary were living at Great Marlow in Buckinghamshire.

I know when I'm researching or blogging about historical items my first thought is that I'd love to own something like this. I'm hoping that the Bronte Museum has raised enough money to buy the books and furniture that surely belong there, because if they are bought by a private collector it's very unlikely any of us will ever see them.

Yet at the same time I understand the lure of owning something that was used by a known person, or a letter written by a favorite author.

What do you think? What would you like to own and what would you do with it? Donate it to a museum? Gloat over it, wearing cotton gloves, in the privacy of your own climate-controlled vault?

UPDATE: The results of the auction have been posted at BronteBlog. Not all bad news.

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Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Just the thought of anyone owning this stuff privately fills me full of Bolshevik -- or should I say Jacobin? -- rage.

Hoping they do find the hairbrush, tho. I'm not sure why...

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Kathrynn Dennis said...

I agree, whole-heartedly, Janet. I hope the Bronte museum gets the books and the desk, some way. I've wondered before about those Picassos and other great works that are far from public vew, tucked away in the owners unreachable private collection. It seems sad.

When I read the "Secret Life of Bees" the most touching scene was when the young heroine finds her long dead mother's hairbrush--with hair still in it. It made the mother real and a little closer for the little girl....keeping those kinds of artifacts, books, personal items, desks accessible keep the historical figure real for me. I love museums where I can see their stuff just for that reason.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Marvelously intriguing stuff, Janet! Funny you should mention Dickens's ms. of A Christmas Carol because not two hours ago I was looking at the page under glass at the Morgan Library -- as well as experiencing the rather mindblowing Jane Austen exhibit there. I am so overwhelmed (did I mention that I also saw the Wm. Blake exhibit and the exhibition of 18th c. Rococo drawings?) that I can't even articulate my emotions right now.

I own a (1925) copy (I think it's a first edition) of Noel Coward's 1925 play The Vortex, which is signed by the playwright to someone as a Christmas gift. I've often wondered whether it's still worth what I paid for it (and I purchased it in 1999 which was the centenary of his birth, so I probably paid a premium). It sits in my bookcase as a cherished possession, but no one knows about it except me. I've toyed with donating it to an institution, selling it ...

I've held the 3 volumes of a first edition of Pride and Prejudice in my hands and tears came rolling out of my eyes and down my cheeks and the antiquarian bookseller was regarding me with trepidation, thinking "she'd better not sniffle all over $60,000 worth of literary treasures!"

1:33 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I am laughing at Leslie crying all over the Austen.

But I probably would have done the same. I'll be cheering for the museum to win the Bronte items. Seems only right.

I own a first edition Byron. My late DH got it for me when he signed on with his first psychiatric practice. I have managed to hang on to it through his death, being completely and utterly broke and everything in between and I hope to leave it to our local library when I go.

When I lived and studied in Salzburg I used to go by the Mozart birthplace museum on Getreidegasse. One rainy afternoon I was there alone and the curator recognized me. (Tells you how often I visited.) In the museum is a harpsichord owned and played by Mozart. It is behind ropes and has a little glass top over the keyboard. The curator asked if I wanted to touch the keyboard. It was only for a moment, but it meant the world to me. To put my hand where his hand had been. I've been privileged to study original scores of his music in his hand. But touching that keyboard was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I wouldn't mind owning it, but I truly think his belongings, like his music belong to the world now.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Seems like we're all on the same page here: Fingers crossed for the museums of the world! Though I must admit that I think what Bill Gates did with da Vinci's Codex Leicester is awfully cool, and I'm not sure that it would so readily available to scholars and laymen if it had been bought by a museum (and I guess I assume that he will eventually donate it to some lucky museum, if he doesn't create one of his own a la The Getty).

10:38 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I recently saw the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library as well, and I got chills. I love primary source materials. I think I would definitely donate letters to a museum--they should be seen. I'd love to own a first edition by a beloved author though (Leslie, it's so cool you have the Noel Coward). I got to work with some original Caxton books at the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley (the library staff sets them down for you and you can only use pencil for notes), which was amazing, though I did most of my work on reprints I could check out and take home.

10:50 AM  
Blogger Deana Sidney said...

What a wonderful blog! I just found your site and love the history... the desks are amazing. Doing a Jane Austen inspired post this week.... look forward to dropping in on you often!

1:44 AM  

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