There are several urban myths about Newtown’s famous reclusive spinster, Elizabeth (Eliza) Emily Donnithorne. The most persistent, and attractive, is that she was one of the models for Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. (It’s even mentioned in the information booklet for Camperdown Cemetery.) In this fascinating book, Evelyn Juers sets out first to discover the truth behind the myth and second to discover Eliza Donnithorne herself.
Reclusion resists historical recovery … I began by wondering to what extent Eliza Donnithorne corresponded to, or had been subsumed by, Miss Havisham, but I was lured firmly in pursuit of her, not by any rumoured, gaudy eccentricity on her part, rather by what one commentator called an evanishment, a term which implies, not absence, but an irretrievable presence.
The truth of the Miss Havisham rumour remains a (remote) possibility – there were connections between Dickens and the Donnithorne family, and he might have heard her story, or even have met her personally. But the prevailing version, that one of his sons told him about her after a visit to Sydney, is pretty thoroughly debunked; Great Expectations was already published before the son’s arrival. A friend of Dickens’s did come out before the book’s serialisation and it’s just possible he relayed the story.
‘Just possible’ is about all the book commits to in terms of Miss Havisham being partly modelled on Eliza. There’s simply no evidence to support it. Whether Eliza was even jilted or not remains a mystery; she was rumoured to have been engaged to several men. One Sydney gossip page announced her engagement to Stuart Donaldson, an MP who later became Colonial Secretary and was very briefly NSW’s first Premier, but that trail peters out pretty quickly. No further announcements or correspondence, and nothing to show the two even knew each other – just as well, as he was obviously a cad; he already had a mistress and an illegitimate son at the time of the announcement, and the suggestion was that he might need money. Eliza was a wealthy woman. But it’s just possibly got some foundation … There were other possible absconding fiancés:
One version has Eliza abandoned in 1846 (the year she arrived), other versions cite 1848 and even as late as 1865 (after her father’s death). Apart from a name … George Cuthbertson … there’s no evidence of the identity of the groom.
As for the biographer’s search for Eliza herself, who she was and what she did, the details remain elusive after her childhood, and even then they are subject to some surmise. Her later life was virtually undocumented and is by now almost totally veiled in hearsay, myth, local embellishment and sensationalist journalism after the fact.
In the end, Juers comes down to only a scattering of definite things about Eliza’s life in Australia: she was a spinster, an avid reader, a wealthy woman who managed her own affairs and she was generous and kind. Half right for Miss Havisham.
Elizabeth Emily Donnithorne was born in Cape Town in 1821. The Donnithornes were wealthy Cornish gentry who mixed with others of their ilk, including several eminent Hanoverians and Victorians and some minor royalty. Her father, James, made his career in India, where Eliza’s childhood was mostly spent. James married several times and had a typical 19th-century male’s plethora of children by different mothers, some of them illegitimate. He worked for the East India Company, was involved with trade to Australia and held several colonial offices. These years are examined in some detail – perhaps too much, although James’s constant flitting about between India and Australia and India and England has a certain bemusing interest. It’s not clear whether Eliza stayed in India for the whole of James’s tenure or whether she also spent time in England, particularly after her mother’s death when Eliza was eleven.
After his retirement James settled in Australia, where he already had substantial investments. He moved in exalted circles in Sydney, numbering among his friends Governor Gipps, and he was an early member of the Australia Club.
Eliza seems to have stayed in London with her brother and sister-in-law, who were briefly neighbours of Dickens’s in Twickenham, but she joined James in 1846 and at some stage they moved to Camperdown Lodge at the corner of Cooks River Road (King Street) and Georgina Street, Newtown, where Eliza was to live until her death in 1886. Camperdown Lodge occupied the entire corner block – extending from what is now a row of shop frontages to the gracious set of mansions facing Hollis Park.
Father and daughter appear to have lived a social and convivial life among the notables of the colony until James died in 1852. It is after that that Eliza’s reclusion seems to have asserted itself.
It’s the central section of the book that is the most engaging. The search for Eliza, and for possible connections to Great Expectations, frustrated by lack of documentation as it is, takes us on an intriguing hunt for this elusive and ‘irretrievable presence’.
Eliza’s reputation for eccentricity seems to have consisted of the following probable facts: her likely agoraphobia; leaving her door open, but on the latch (she wouldn’t open it fully to visitors); her love of reading; the hearsay observation that her dining table was always set for a meal and the fact that she was a wealthy spinster – this last enough in itself to spawn rumours of madness, obsession and heartbreak:
It’s said she met someone she loved, her father objected to their marriage but then gave in and on the wedding day the groom did not turn up. From that moment on, in case he was delayed, Eliza is supposed to have suffered an extreme form of lovesickness, worn her wedding dress for the rest of her life and over four decades kept the wedding feast laid out.
In fact most of her reported habits (with the exception, perhaps, of voracious reading) were common at the time. With servants, a large garden of at least an acre, a few animals and birds and unlimited supplies of books, why wouldn’t you stay at home? And far from wearing her wedding dress at all times, her draper’s bills show that she regularly purchased colourful silks.
Juers carefully examines how first-hand knowledge and acquaintance has been exaggerated and distorted as it passed through the generations: the house was believed to be haunted until it was demolished; then Eliza’s ghost moved to Camperdown Cemetery, where she is buried with her father. Other local wisdom suggests she was a known benefactress
The image of lace is used several times in The Recluse – how it is a symbol of brides (as in Miss Havisham’s wedding finery); the enticing way lace reveals and at the same time conceals; the integral holes that are both part of its shape and substance and also provide enticing liminal spaces for the imagination. The central story, of the real Eliza, is as delicate and elusive as a panel of very fine, cobwebby lace itself, set into (and in danger of being overwhelmed by) a densely wrought frame of social and family history and an analysis of reclusion. Some of this is complex and tangential, though interesting in itself, but it does have the effect of keeping the sense of evanishment, making the reader impatient to get back to the glimpses we do get of the elusive Eliza, in the shadows, behind a partly opened door. It’s a story full of possibilities in all senses.
Evelyn Juers The Recluse, Giramondo, 2012, PB, 154pp, $24.00
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