'The Recluse' by Evelyn Juers
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'The Recluse' by Evelyn Juers, Giramondo; $24.00.
One of Sydney’s most enduring myths is the story that the nineteenth-century heiress Eliza Donnithorne was the model for Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The daughter of an official of the East India Company who eventually settled in Newtown, Eliza was said to have been left at the altar by a mystery fiancé and to have spent the rest of her days in seclusion. Every decade or so some organ of the popular media rehashes the tale and there are tours of colonial Sydney that feature Eliza’s grave in the derelict churchyard of St Stephen’s.
In the latest in Giramondo’s small books series, The Recluse, Evelyn Juers pursues the case of Eliza Donnithorne with diligence only to discover that, in research terms, there is no mother lode. Not only is there no evidence that Dickens knew of Eliza, there is no historical evidence for Eliza having been jilted, or of her roaming her house in a white dress. The myth of the real Miss Havisham is a product of local fancy.
Juers, an award-winning biographer, is too conscientious an historian to fudge this disappointing truth. Instead, she sets out to develop a case for Eliza as an interesting recluse in her own right, a kind of Emily Dickinson without the poetry. The problem with this more modest project is that she still doesn’t have enough material to work with. What she uncovers is an ordinary woman who loved animals, suffered from headaches and was absorbed in managing her investments. Moreover, the evidence for Eliza as any kind of recluse is sparse; it won’t suffice even for this short book, which is padded out with a detailed genealogy of the Donnithorne family and an account of the author’s dead-end research trails.