20 July 2012: Miss Donnithorne

Eliza Emily Donnithorne has achieved posthumous renown as Newtown’s most famous 19th century resident – a strange turn of events for someone reputed to be a recluse!

It’s been said that Eliza Donnithorne inspired the character of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Like Miss Havisham, Miss Donnithorne was a rumoured to be a jilted bride who always wore her wedding gown, left her wedding feast uneaten on the table and the front door ajar (but chained) – all just in case her intended groom should return.

Dickens based a number of characters in his novels on Colonial characters – which points to the connections between England and Australia in the 19th century, and indeed Dickens’ own connection to Australia: two of his sons settled in NSW.

Eliza Donnithorne (1821-86) was born in the Cape of Good Hope, the youngest of two brothers and two sisters born to James and Sarah (nee Bampton). She lived in India with her family but moved to England when her mother and two sisters died during a cholera outbreak in 1832. When she was in her mid-20s, Eliza moved to Australia. She lived with her father James at Camperdown Lodge, later renamed Cambridge Hall. When James Donnithorne died in 1852, she continued to live there until the end of her days.

During her lifetime, Eliza Donnithorne remained largely invisible and has left few traces. But three years after her death, the story about her supposed abandonment at the altar appeared in the Illustrated Sydney News on 27 June 1889:

Of being jilted, the paper claimed that ‘it appears to have completely prostrated her, and, it is to be feared, to some extent affected her reason. Her habits became decidedly eccentric after that wedding day on which there was no wedding, at all events, for she never again left the house. She appears to have lost all interest in life, and the world forgetting, if not by the world forgot, she became almost as much a recluse as if she had entered a nunnery. For more than thirty years–and long after her father and all her relatives had left the world–did the unfortunate lady reside at Cambridge Hall, her only solace being books. She became an insatiable reader, and when she died, less than two years ago, she left an extensive and valuable library behind her.’

Was she a jilted bride, and indeed a recluse? The jury is still out – there is little evidence to support or deny either claim. She left behind few traces – a few financial records and letters to her advisers, but no photographs or paintings. Clearly she didn’t get out much but in death she has become a blank canvas – her mysterious ways have provoked intrigue and generated stories. Indeed, Miss Donnithorne has become a character in her own right, inspiring novels, plays and dances.

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Filed under History, Sydney history

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