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.

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