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.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

Grace Tame running in the 2023 Bruny Island Ultra Marathon

Running out of trouble

How long-distance running changed the life of the former Australian of the Year (and earnt her a record win in an ultramarathon)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much

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 ‘Kids Run the Show’

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens

Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

‘Boy Swallows Universe’

The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe

Cover of ‘Question 7’

Richard Flanagan's ‘Question 7’

A slim volume of big ideas that takes in H.G. Wells, chain reaction, Hiroshima and the author’s near-death experience on the Franklin River

Scene from ‘The Curse’

‘The Curse’

Nathan Fielder directs and co-stars in an erratic comedy about the performative benevolence of a couple creating a social housing reality TV show


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality