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Mysterious manuscript

MU owns a minor masterpiece by the author of Jane Eyre

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: Jan. 24, 2012
Unpublished manuscript written by a young Charlotte Bronte

This original manuscript by Charlotte Brontë, written during the famous author's adolescence, is held in the MU Libraries Special Collections. The young Brontë's handwriting was so small that reading the text requires a magnifying glass.

The literary world learned in December that an unpublished manuscript written by a young Charlotte Brontë sold at auction to a French museum for a record 690,000 British pounds sterling, or $1,065,221. Just before the sale, the auction house Sotheby’s reported that only a handful of original Brontë works remained in private ownership.

MU is one of the few entities that owns an original Charlotte Brontë manuscript.

The Secret and Lily Hart, a set of two novels written in the author's formative years, are stored in the MU Libraries Special Collections.

Magnified mystery

Readers need a strong magnifying glass to peruse Brontë’s juvenile works. And even with magnification, it’s difficult to make out the tiny hand-written script of The Secret and Lily Hart, signed by Charlotte Brontë and dated Nov. 27, 1833. 

Charlotte and her brother, Branwell, collaborated on writing their youthful plays, magazines, poetry and stories in extreme miniature.

The 19,000 words in The Secret and Lily Hart cover four sheets of notepaper the color of today’s grocery bags. The paper is folded into 16 small pages measuring 4 1/2 inches long by 3 5/8 inches.

Why Brontë wrote so small remains a mystery.

Some literary researchers speculate Brontë and her siblings were trying to hide their writings from a stern, religious aunt, who cared for the children after their mother died. Others speculate the children were writing in miniature to fit a regiment of toy soldiers that inspired some of their stories. 

Charlotte was as young as 10 when she wrote some of the pieces and 17 when she wrote The Secret and Lily Hart. The novels are set in Verdopolis, the capitol of Angria, a colony invented by the siblings.

Most of Charlotte’s juvenile writings and letters can be found in the Brontë Parsonage Museum in the family’s home in Haworth, West Yorkshire, England.

Dark and brooding

Kelli Hansen holds the tiny book

Kelli Hansen, librarian of MU’s print collection, holds the original Charlotte Brontë manuscript signed and dated Nov. 27, 1833, when the author was a teenager. A similar manuscript sold at auction for more than $1 million.

Brontë’s juvenile manuscripts are important because they offer readers early clues about the characters and stories of her adult writing.

It’s tough reading the juvenilia though. Brontë’s spelling was creative, and she didn’t always follow rules of capitalization and punctuation.

The Secret, a dramatic story with dark twisted plots, reflects the Gothic style of Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, which is considered a literary masterpiece.

MU English Professor Emeritus William Holtz, in his book Two Tales by Charlotte Brontë, wrote of how Douro, handsome hero of The Secret, re-emerged as Rochester in Jane Eyre.

In Lily Hart, Holtz found what he called Brontë’s “impulse of genius” and a “sense of the long preparation out of which Jane Eyre grew.”

Readers can see facsimiles of the original text and access summaries of the two stories on the Special Collections website. The library also keeps a bibliography of books with full transcriptions.

Manuscript’s path to MU

After Charlotte’s death in 1855, her husband, the Rev. Arthur Nicholls, inherited most of her manuscripts and letters. Although he told a broker he intended to burn them, he sold many of the works and transcribed some.

Author Elizabeth Gaskell was the first to document The Secret by reproducing its first page in her 1857 biography of Charlotte.

Researchers conjecture the two-novel manuscript was purchased by a broker in 1895 and passed to a collector. In 1915 it was sold at auction in New York and was untraceable for decades.

The manuscript resurfaced when Missouri Congressman James W. Symington, son of U.S. Sen. Stuart Symington and Evelyn Wadsworth Symington, discovered it among his mother’s possessions after her death in 1973.

“The manuscript we have was thought lost in World War II. Mrs. Symington had purchased it in a book shop in Britain somewhere when they were there,” says Michael Holland, director of MU Special Collections, Archives and Rare Books.

Senator Symington and his son gave the manuscript to University of Missouri Libraries in 1975.

Alarms will sound

MU preserves its Brontë manuscript in a humidity- and temperature-controlled vault on the fourth floor of Ellis Library, home of Special Collections.

Alarms will sound if the humidity drops below 55 percent or the temperature strays from 68 degrees.

When MU acquired the manuscript, it was loosely sewn together as a pamphlet with a brown-paper wrapper. The paper was encased in a tri-fold red leather folder that fit into a brown leather slipcase — an absolute horror for preservationists.

“Red is not a good color for preservation. It can bleed or transfer to the manuscript,” says Kelli Hansen, librarian of MU’s print collection.

So MU’s conservationists separated the pages and placed each in Mylar,­ an inert plastic considered safe for preserving paper. The encapsulated manuscript is safely stored in an acid-free cardboard box inside the vault.

Free to view

Visitors are welcome to phone ahead or walk in to see MU’s Brontë manuscript for research or just enjoyment.

Guests may touch the plastic-enclosed manuscript and turn its pages, but they will have to present a photo ID and sit under a security camera during the visit.

“This manuscript should be available to people. We are very glad to share our resources. It’s the main part of our work,” says Alla Barabtarlo, head of MU Libraries Rare Books and Special Collections.

Barabtarlo and Hansen give lectures to classes and groups and assist individuals wanting to see the rare treasures. Questions about the pieces come from around the world.

“Everything has its secret, its mystery, and we have 90,000 of these beautiful things. We want people to know about them and to come here and enjoy them,” Barabtarlo says.

Speculating on the value of MU’s Brontë manuscript, Holland indicated its real importance is its availability to scholars. “I don’t think ours would be any less valuable than the one that sold recently to France, particularly since our manuscript consists of two novels,” Holland says.

Unpublished manuscript written by a young Charlotte Bronte

This rare Charlotte Brontë manuscript held in the MU Libraries Special Collections contains two novels. Missouri Congressman James W. Symington donated the treasure to Mizzou in 1975 after discovering it among his deceased mother's possessions. Scholars are able to view the carefully preserved manuscript in Ellis Library with assistance from the staff. 

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Last updated: June 6, 2013