Among the manuscripts stored in the MU Libraries Special Collections is one that may be worth more than $1 million.
Charlotte Brontë wrote The Secret and Lily Hart, which are novels bound as one, when she was about 17 years old. The manuscript is signed by Brontë and dated Nov. 27, 1833.
The university is one of the few owners of an original manuscript by Brontë, a heralded 19th-century English writer. Last December, an unpublished manuscript by a young Brontë sold at auction to a French museum for $1 million and some change.
“I don’t think ours would be any less valuable … particularly since our manuscript consists of two novels,” said Michael Holland, director of MU Special Collections and Rare Books, which houses about 90,000 works.
Brontë’s early manuscripts are important because they offer clues about the characters and stories of her adult novels.
The Secret, a dramatic story with dark twisted plots, reflects the Gothic style of Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, considered a literary masterpiece.
William Holtz, professor emeritus of English, wrote in his book Two Tales by Charlotte Brontë, that Douro, the 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.”
The novels are tough reading, though. Brontë’s spelling was creative, and she didn’t always follow rules of capitalization and punctuation.
They also are hard on the eyes. Even with a magnifying glass, it’s difficult to make out the tiny hand-written script of The Secret and Lily Hart.
Why Brontë and her siblings wrote so small remains a mystery.
Some literary researchers say they were trying to hide their writings from a stern religious aunt, who cared for the children after their mother died. Others say the children were writing in miniature to be closer to scale of a regiment of toy soldiers that inspired some of their stories. It could also be put down simply to youthful fun.
Manuscript comes to MU
After Brontë’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 transcribed some and sold many.
Author Elizabeth Gaskell was the first to document The Secret by reproducing its first page in her 1857 biography of Brontë.
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 Sen. Stuart Symington and Evelyn Wadsworth Symington, discovered it among his mother’s possessions after her death in 1973, Holland said. It is believed she had purchased the work in Britain.
Stuart Symington and his son gave the manuscript to MU Libraries in 1975.
Library welcomes visitors
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 by 3 5/8 inches.
When MU acquired it, the manuscript was encased in a tri-fold leather folder that fit into a brown leather slipcase. The folder was red, a horror for preservationists.
“It can bleed or transfer to the manuscript,” said Special Collections librarian Kelli Hansen.
Conservationists separated the pages and placed each in Mylar, an inert plastic considered safe for preserving paper.
The encapsulated manuscript is stored in an acid-free cardboard box inside 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.
Visitors are welcome to see it. But to turn its plastic-encased pages, they will have to present a photo ID and be viewed on a security camera.
“We are very glad to share our resources. It’s the main part of our work,” said Alla Barabtarlo, head of Special Collections and Rare Books.
— Nancy Moen