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A Tiny Brontë Book, Lost for a Century, Resurfaces

The miniature books created by Charlotte Brontë and her siblings as children have long been objects of fascination for fans and deep-pocketed collectors. Initially created to entertain their toy soldiers, the tiny volumes reflected the rich imaginary world they created in the isolation of the family home on the moors of northern England, which fed into novels like Charlotte’s “Jane Eyre” and Emily’s “Wuthering Heights.”

Now, the last of the more than two dozen created by Charlotte to remain in private hands has surfaced, and will be coming up for sale next month.

“A Book of Rhymes,” a 15-page volume smaller than a playing card, was last seen at auction in 1916 in New York, where it sold for $520 before disappearing, its whereabouts — and even its survival — unknown. It will be unveiled on April 21, the opening night of the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair and, as it happens, Brontë’s birthday. The asking price? A cool $1.25 million.

The titles of the 10 poems (including “The Beauty of Nature” and “On Seeing the Ruins of the Tower of Babel”) have long been known, thanks to the 1857 biography of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell, which transcribed Brontë’s own handwritten catalog of her juvenilia. But the poems themselves have never been published, photographed, transcribed or even summarized.

And they’ll stay that way at least a little bit longer. One recent morning, Henry Wessells, a bookseller at the Manhattan firm James Cummins Bookseller (which is selling the book in partnership with the London-based firm Maggs Bros.) was eager to show off the tiny volume — on the condition its contents not be quoted or described.

“The eventual purchaser will be able to steward them into publication, which will be a red-letter day for Brontë scholarship,” he said.

Wessells, a 25-year veteran of the book trade, has handled many remarkable things over the years, including the archives of the New York Review of Books and a flag flown by T.E. Lawrence and the victorious Arab rebels at the Battle of Aqaba in 1917. But the unassuming hand-stitched bundle of Brontë paper is “a once-in-a-career item.”

“It’s thrilling to be part of the history of English literature, one link in the chain,” he said. “And there’s also just the joy of actually having it on my desk. The more you look at it, the more interesting it becomes.”

There have been plenty of dramatic red-letter days in Brontë scholarship of late. Last year, a large “lost” library of Brontë manuscripts and other literary artifacts that had been virtually unseen for a century surfaced suddenly and was put up for auction. After an outcry, the auction was postponed, and the collection was acquired intact for $20 million by an unusual consortium of libraries and museums, to be preserved for the British public.

And in 2019, the Brontë Parsonage Museum raised nearly $800,000 to buy a miniature magazine made by Charlotte that came up for auction after the French commercial venture that owned it went bankrupt.

The miniature microvolumes had remained in the Brontë family until the 1890s, when they were dispersed, along with many other manuscripts and artifacts, after the death of the second wife of Charlotte’s widower. Today, all the other tiny books made by Charlotte are in institutional collections, including the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.

“The Book of Rhymes” (or “ryhmes,” as Charlotte spelled it on the title page), Wessells said, had survived tucked in a letter size envelope stashed inside a 19th-century schoolbook in what he described as “an American private collection.” (He declined to say more about the owner, citing a confidentiality agreement.)

In his office, he opened the envelope, which was labeled “Brontë manuscript,” and in the upper left corner, “most valuable.” Then he pulled out the book, which was folded inside a copy of an old auction listing.

The book was made of cheap, drab brown paper, unevenly trimmed and sewn together with thread, “textured like a tiny rope,” as Wessels put it.

He turned to the back to show the table of contents, with Charlotte’s explanation that the poems are credited to two imaginary authors in the fictional world, “Marquis of Duro & Lord Charles Wellesley,” but actually “written by me.”

He then flipped to the title page, flipping it over to read a disclaimer on the reverse: “The following are attempts at rhyming of an inferior nature it must be acknowledged but they are nevertheless my best.”

And finally, he slowly turned the pages, to allow a tantalizing glimpse of the poems, reiterating that the contents were off the record.

No worries there. The microscopic handwriting, intended to mimic the printed fonts of a “real” book, was impossible to read at a quick glance without a magnifying glass.

The poems — some long, some short, sometimes with crossed-out words and corrections — were each dated and signed or initialed “C.B.” Wessells described them as “of different styles and meters” (including a sonnet, listed on the table of contents as “A Thing of fourteen lines”), but declined to offer any “literary evaluation.”

Claire Harman, a Brontë scholar who also viewed the manuscript in Wessells’ office, said she could decipher a few snippets of the poems, which she called “the last unread poems by Charlotte Brontë.” And depending on the desires of the buyer, she noted, “they may stay that way.” (Wessells said future plans for the manuscript may be “one factor” in identifying “an appropriate buyer.”)

The poems seemed “very charming” she said, despite Brontë’s disclaimer. As for the handwriting, she said, “it’s like a mouse has been writing this,” comparing the experience of reading the Brontë miniature books to Alice’s growing and shrinking in “Alice in Wonderland.”

“They’re like portals into a different world,” she said. “You go in, and you come out the other side.”

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