Having written 17 books herself, it is clear that the literary world is close to her heart.
And Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, was ‘overwhelmed’ yesterday as she examined a collection of manuscripts by Britain’s greatest Victorian novelists and poets, hidden for more than a century.
The MP offered her total support to a momentous fundraising effort to save the Honresfield Library from being broken up and sold abroad.
The collection contains a number of handwritten texts by some of the country’s best-known writers – including Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Charlotte Bronte.
The works had been due to go to auction in July until Sotheby’s agreed to halt the sale to enable the charity Friends of the National Libraries (FNL) to raise the £15million needed to keep the texts on public display in the UK.
Dorries visited the collection at Sotheby’s where it is currently being held while FNL fundraise
Mrs Dorries said the collection – which includes Sir Walter’s manuscript of Rob Roy and Bronte’s miniature notebooks – were the ‘crown jewels of our literary heritage, capturing the DNA of our island story’ as she emphasised the importance of keeping the works in the public domain.
She said: ‘It’s important everybody from every background has access to this because it will inspire writers of the future, it will inspire kids who think, “Books aren’t for me, writing is not for me,” to see something like that and think, “Wow”.
‘And they’ll get that tingle down their spine, that same buzz when they see it and want to do something themselves. And only if that’s in public ownership will that happen.’
FNL’s ambitious project – the first national arts appeal of its kind – has already raised £7.5million, including £4million of taxpayer money donated by the National Heritage Memorial Fund and more than £116,000 in public donations. And the appeal has also won other high-profile supporters including Stephen Fry, the estate of poet TS Eliot and Prince Charles who backed the FNL campaign in the Daily Mail earlier this week.
The collection includes very rare handwritten manuscripts by some of Britain’s great writers
Mrs Dorries was shown texts at Sotheby’s in London yesterday, where the collection is currently being kept. She said she felt ‘incredibly privileged’ to see the works written by the all-time greats and admitted her ‘enthusiasm as a novelist and reader’ was making her ‘tummy flip’. ‘These are the crown jewels of our literary history,’ she said.
If successful in acquiring the collection, FNL intends to split the works between a consortium of institutions across the country including the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford and the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire and the British Library.
The unseen letters and manuscripts can be digitalised to ensure they can be accessed easily by schools and young people everywhere. Mrs Dorries said that it was ‘really important’ the works were ‘absolutely shared across the country’ enabling access to a wide range of people.
She delighted in seeing the word ‘Haworth’ in Bronte’s own hand, naming the village where the Bronte sisters were brought up. She also held the manuscript of Burns’s Auld Lang Syne.
She was astounded by Sir Walter’s skill – Rob Roy was written in one draft with no corrections –as she confessed she has to ‘rewrite a chapter about 12 times’ in her own novels.
The Culture Secretary added: ‘The fact they’re going to go back to their original roots, going home – it’s amazing. They’re going home and that’s fantastic.
Dorries was joined by Professor Kathryn Sutherland, a Jane Austen expert based at the University of Oxford, to peruse the manuscripts
‘And everyone can see them. If you live in Yorkshire you don’t have to travel to London to see them. An added advantage of this massive drive by Friends of the National Libraries is that it is levelling up in action as libraries in Leeds, Scotland, Yorkshire, Hampshire and Oxford will all benefit. It’s actually emotional, it really is.’
Professor Kathryn Sutherland, a Jane Austen expert based at the University of Oxford, told Mrs Dorries the impact the collection would have in the public domain.
She said: ‘This has got to go back on public display. There is so much we can do in terms of public engagement with this material .
‘It doesn’t matter where it resides because we can collect it together in so many ways and engage with it creatively too.
‘It’s not just saving heritage it’s creative renewal – we can do a lot, we can stimulate a lot of creativity with this among school children.’
For more information about the Friends of the National Libraries, including how to donate to the Honresfield Appeal, please visit www.fnl.org.uk