Ellis Library’s Special Collections and Rare Books Department boasts a treasure trove of literary works from the past 1,000 years.
Among the books stored in a back room on the third floor is a tiny, original manuscript by Charlotte Brontë, who is most famous for her book "Jane Eyre." The 179-year-old manuscript, which contains two short stories, has been miraculously preserved through diligent care.
“It’s kept in a room called the vault,” Print Collections librarian Kelli Hansen said. “It basically has its own climate control system that is kept at the right temperature for optimal preservation for paper, which is about 68 degrees and 50 to 55 percent humidity. Higher temperatures causes paper to age faster.”
In addition to remaining in the vault, each page is encased in Mylar so people may come see, touch and read the stories, "The Secret" and "Lily Hart."
But the manuscript was not always kept in such favorable conditions. When MU received the manuscript in 1975 from former Missouri Congressman James W. Symington and his father, former Senator Stuart Symington, the book was loosely stitched into a red leather tri-fold kept in a brown leather slipcase.
Red is one of the worst colors to use to preserve a book because it will most likely bleed or transfer onto the pages.
“The main danger of transferring dye is if the manuscript got wet,” Hansen said. “As far as we know, it never got wet.”
Hansen said the pages were also kept intact because of little use of the manuscipt. Although the pages are a little worn, they are in surprisingly good condition for 19th century English paper.
“Paper quality has a lot to do with preservation, and English paper was the worst for it,” said Alla Barabtarlo, head of Rare Books and Special Collections. “It just crumbles when it’s touched.”
Aside from being one of Brontë’s only surviving manuscripts, its minuscule size makes it unique. The paper Brontë printed on, which is the hue of today’s brown paper grocery bags, was folded into 16 pages measuring 4 1/2 inches long by 3 5/8 inches.
The author managed to fit 19,000 words on the pages in almost microscopic print. Most people cannot read the manuscript without a magnifying glass.
“There are all sorts of theories as to why Charlotte and (her brother) Branwell wrote so small,” Hansen said. “Some believe it was to hide it, and some think it has something to do with her and her brother’s games. The size of ours is much bigger than others.”
Hansen added that the bigger size could indicate Brontë was maturing in her writing and fictional perspective. She was 17 years old at the time she wrote this manuscript, whereas her younger manuscripts were much smaller.
Another Brontë manuscript, small enough to fit in the palm of someone’s hand even when opened, sold for over $1 million during a Sotheby auction in December.
“We consider the manuscript priceless,” Barabtarlo said. “If sold it, it could probably fetch a price of over a million, but it will never be done, because it belongs not to the library, but to the people of Missouri.”