Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: James Aitchison

One of literature’s great mysteries concerns Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.  Did the real Miss Havisham live in Sydney, Australia?  And if so, how the dickens did Charles Dickens hear about her?

Well, the first myth we should dispel on this journey concerns the phrase “What the dickens”.  It has nothing to do with the famous author.  It is a euphemism for the Devil or Old Nick, and one of its earliest literary appearances is in Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act 3, Scene 2): “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is…”

And so, to Miss Havisham.  Was a Sydney recluse, Eliza Emily Donnithorne (1826-1886), the prototype for Dickens’s famous character? 

We know that Dickens was a keen advocate of social reform.  The themes of banishment, opportunity and redemption were close to his heart.  While he never visited the colony of New South Wales, he saw it as a utopia for the working class where the hard-working would be richly rewarded.  In many of his books, characters were sentenced to penal servitude.  In fact, in Great Expectations, Abel Magwitch was sentenced to transportation for the term of his natural life.  In Australia, Magwitch becomes a wealthy farmer and the hero Pip’s benefactor. 

Importantly, Dickens also published a weekly journal, Household Words, from 1850-1859, in which over 100 articles related to the colonies and the benefits of emigration.  His knowledge of life in Sydney was well-informed.  In fact, the claim that Eliza Donnithorne inspired Miss Havisham has been part of Australian literary lore since the last decades of the 19th century.

As we will discover, Donnithorne and Havisham suffered similar fates.

Eliza was born at the Cape of Good Hope and spent her early childhood in Calcutta, where her father James Donnithorne worked for the East India Company as master of the mint and later as a judge.  Her mother and two older sisters died during a cholera epidemic in the 1830s.  When Eliza was seventeen, her father retired to Sydney and purchased Cambridge Hall, a stone mansion at 36 King Street, Newtown.  Its tall pine tree remained a landmark for many years.  Judge Donnithorne died in May 1852, and Eliza inherited most of his estate including land and houses in Sydney, Melbourne and Britain.

In 1856, at the spinsterly age of 30, Eliza Donnithorne was at last about to be married.  Some sources name her fiancé as George Cuthbertson, a shipping company clerk.  On the morning of the wedding, the bride and her maid were dressed for the ceremony, guests assembled, and the wedding breakfast laid out in the long dining room.  The groom never appeared.  A newspaper retold the familiar story: “She never heard from him again.  When the guests had departed, Eliza pulled down the blinds of her house, and for 30 years remained a hermit.  The front door was chained permitting it to open only a few inches [presumably so that her groom could announce his return]; callers never saw her, for when she was forced to speak to them, she remained out of sight.  Here, for those long years, lived a woman in whom hope had died.  When death at last came to Eliza, those who came to carry her to the greater peace of Camperdown Cemetery found her still clad in her bridal gown.  Dust lay thick on the floor, and the windowpanes were thick with grime.  And in the dining room, the wedding feast was uneaten, and the food had mouldered into dust.”

Many theories exist suggesting Eliza was the inspiration for Miss Havisham.

Some say that Judge Donnithorne was a close friend of the novelist.  However, Donnithorne died in 1856, two years before his daughter was jilted, and his friendship with Dickens remains unproven.

Another theory suggests that two of Dickens’s ten children migrated to Australia and wrote home telling their father about the reclusive Eliza Donnithorne.  Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens arrived in 1865, and Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens (nicknamed Plorn) followed in 1869.  All well and good, except that Great Expectations was first published in 1861.

A more likely explanation is the relationship between Dickens and the great Australian social reformer and women’s advocate, Caroline Chisholm.  Chisholm met Dickens in England in 1850 and corresponded with him about the Australian colonies.  Her descriptions of life in New South Wales were published in Household Words.  Further, Chisholm ran a school for girls in Newtown, near Donnithorne’s home, and had spent much time with Eliza before that fateful wedding day.  Chisholm and her husband were members of the same philanthropic circle as Judge Donnithorne.  And, at one point, both Chisholm and Eliza were treated by the same Sydney doctor.  (On a cruel note, it is widely believed that the character of Mrs Jellby in Bleak House was likely based on Chisholm!) 

Everyone it seemed was grist for the author’s mill.

Meanwhile, two rivals have emerged in Britain to claim “ownership” of Miss Havisham.  Firstly, James Payn, a minor novelist, claimed to have given Dickens the idea for Miss Havisham from a living original of his acquaintance.  He declared that Dickens’s account was “not one whit exaggerated”.  It is documented Dickens encountered a wealthy recluse named Elizabeth Parker while staying at Newport, Shropshire, at the aptly named Havisham Court.  Secondly, Dickens spent the summer of 1849 at Bonchurch, on the Isle of Wight, writing chapters of David Copperfield.  There he often walked on St Boniface Down with the brother of Margaret Catherine Dick, another jilted recluse.  However, she was not spurned until 1860, merely one year before Great Expectations was published.

The question remains, was Eliza Donnithorne the real-life model for Miss Havisham — or simply a coincidence and the stuff of literary legend?

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