July 2012

Arts & Letters

'The Recluse' by Evelyn Juers

By kieronb
'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.

Juers might have given more space to the question of why, with so little historical basis, the myth of a Sydney Miss Havisham arose in the first place. Was it the desire of colonials on the margin to believe their culture rich enough to inspire a great writer to his most haunting creation? Or do its roots lie more deeply in the collective psyche, in the archetype of the woman in white who appears either as benign goddess or reclusive madwoman? For Carl Jung this archetype was a manifestation of the anima, of a culture’s repressed feminine, and he speculated that this accounted for its potency in folk narrative. In the end, the most interesting thing about Eliza Donnithorne is that the locals felt the need to fashion an ordinary but wealthy spinster into their own version of the archetype, to find a Miss Havisham in their midst who embodied their own projected fears and desires.

From the front page

cartoon:In light of recent events

In light of recent events

Who’s preferencing whom?

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

Image of Steve Toltz

The quip and the dead: Steve Toltz’s ‘Here Goes Nothing’

A bleakly satirical look at death and the afterlife from the wisecracking author of ‘A Fraction of the Whole’

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

In This Issue

Bill Shorten, Beaconsfield, 2006. © Wayne Taylor / Fairfax Syndication

Watch This Face

Bill Shorten

'The Sex Lives of Australians', Frank Bongiorno, Black Inc; $32.95.

'The Sex Lives of Australians' by Frank Bongiorno

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Man of Letters

Danny Johnson’s Anti–Carbon Tax Campaign

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Redemption Lane

Nick D’Arcy


More in Noted

Cover of Robert Lukins’ ‘Loveland’

‘Loveland’

Robert Lukins’ second novel takes a Brisbane woman to Nebraska, where an inheritance sparks a change in character as well as in fortune

Still from ‘We Own This City’

‘We Own This City’

David Simons, creator of ‘The Wire’, returns to Baltimore for a present-day examination of rapacious police corruption

Still from ‘Slow Horses’

‘Slow Horses’

A sardonic Gary Oldman heads a misfit branch of MI5 in Apple TV+’s thrilling exploration of personal motivation and political expedience

Image from ‘The Golden Cockerel’

‘The Golden Cockerel’

Barrie Kosky’s Adelaide production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera satirising the Russo-Japanese War came with uneasy resonances


Online exclusives

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

Image of the Stone of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Remembrance or forgetting?

The Australian War Memorial and the Great Australian Silence

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Labor MP Emma McBride and shadow housing minister Jason Clare after meeting with young renter Lydia Pulley during a visit to her home in Gosford on May 3, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Property damage

What will it take for Australia to fix the affordable housing crisis?

Image of Daniel Johns. Image © Luke Eblen

Present indicative: Daniel Johns’ ‘FutureNever’

The former Silverchair frontman’s second solo album lacks cohesion, but affords him space to excavate his past