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‘I don’t suppose you care to have them’

Published 17 January 2013

Detail from Branwell Bronte's 'Letters from an Englishman' (Manuscripts: Brotherton Collection MS 19c Brontë: B1)

The strange history of the Brontë family manuscripts

The University's Brontë family manuscript collection provides unique insight into the lives of one of the nineteenth century's most significant literary families, and is amongst our most important collections.

These manuscripts are records of moments in time; as we read Branwell's early writings we have unparalleled access to the creative fervent of the small nursery at Haworth Parsonage in the early 1830s. However, the story of the collection since its creation is also fascinating, showing the rare chance by which literary manuscripts so often survive and introducing some of the shadier literary collectors of the early twentieth century.

That there are any Brontë manuscripts available at all is due to Clement Shorter who tracked down AB Nicholls, Charlotte Brontë's widower, in 1895. Nicholls had left Yorkshire in 1861 after the death of Patrick Brontë and taken what was left of the Brontë family papers with him. After Shorter's visit,  Nicholls wrote, 'I found in the bottom of a cupboard tied up in newspaper, where they had lain for nearly 30 years, and where had it not been for your visit, they must have remained during my lifetime, and most likely afterwards have been destroyed'. Of Branwell Brontë's manuscripts, which form the greater part of the University's collection, he wrote 'There is a large number... but I don't suppose you care to have them'.

Nicholls sold the manuscripts to Shorter for a small sum, believing, as letters in our collection show, that they were destined for a London museum. Instead, Shorter sold them, at huge profit, to Thomas J Wise, another collector, who kept some and sold the rest privately, with bound manuscripts often split up page by page and widely scattered. The location of many remains unknown,  some only coming to light recently.

The Brontë manuscripts are part of the original Brotherton Collection, most of which was bought by Lord Brotherton and donated to the University in 1935, following his death. Publically available since then, they have been widely used to support scholarly research into the Brontës.

Manuscripts from the Brontë collection are currently available to view in the Visions of Angria exhibition at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery until 23 February. You can also find out more about the collection at 'A Secret History of the Brontës' talk at Leeds Central Library on 18 January, and 'Re-visioning the Brontës' Symposium at the University of Leeds on 29 January.