Jilted bride made a Dickens of a yarn

Charles Dickens.
Charles Dickens. Friends of Charles Dickens

FANS of 19th century British writer Charles Dickens are flocking to England for celebrations to mark the bicentennial of his birth on February 12 1812, and one story that's sure to be told over and again is that of the tragic life of a young Sydney woman, Eliza Donnithorne - whom Dickens is said to have fictionalised as Miss Havisham in his classic Great Expectations.

The first of many exhibitions to be staged in England to honour Dickens is A Hankering after Ghosts; Charles Dickens and the Supernatural that opened at the British Library in London in early December, and will run until March 4.

From when he was a young boy Dickens had a fascination for ghosts, which culminated in arguably his most famous novel, A Christmas Carol in which the skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge changes his ways after a visit by three spirits.

He also based many of his reformist novels on personal experiences when growing up, including when his father was imprisoned in the notorious Marshalsea prison in Southwark for an unpaid debt to a baker.

The twelve-year-old Charles jumped school to work in a factory to help pay off his dad's debt; pilgrims this year will find only a part of the prison's wall remaining, and a plaque placed there by the local council.
Also marked by a plaque is the site of Furnival's Inn in Holborn where Dickens rented rooms during the mid 1830s and began writing Pickwick Papers, the serialised novel that set him on the path to popularity. Today the impressive Holborn Bars stands on the site and is home to many law firms and convention and meeting halls.

Tavistock House on Devonshire Terrace, near London's Paddington Railway Station, is also marked by a commemorative inscription as it's the location of the home in which Dickens wrote Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities in the 1850s.

And the town of Shrewsbury in Shropshire will also attract its fair share of Dickens disciples during his bicentenary celebrations: it was here in its Music Hall in 1867 that he gave the first-ever public reading of A Christmas Carol.

Shrewsbury was also transformed into Victorian London for the 1984 filming of A Christmas Carol, which starred George C Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge -the movie's grave of Scrooge still lays amongst a host of real ones in the grounds of the local St Chad's Church.

But what is not so well-known about Dickens was his fascination with Australia which he saw as "a place of opportunity," and which he actively encouraged two of his sons to migrate to.

He also had several close acquaintances settle in Sydney, and they sent him letters detailing "the many curious aspects of life in the colonies."

One of these included the tale of Eliza Emily Donnithorne, the daughter of a retired East India Company judge with whom she lived in his gracious Camperdown Lodge in Sydney's Newtown. The letter detailed how after her father's death, Eliza was to have married in the Lodge in 1846, but on her wedding day and dressed in her wedding gown, her guests assembled in the Lodge's large dining room, and with the wedding breakfast set before them, Eliza's fiancé failed to appear - and in fact was learned to be sailing to India.

Jilted and heartbroken she bade her guests goodbye, locked the dining room with the wedding breakfast untouched, closed the window shutters and lived in the darkened house with two female servants until her death there 40 years later. The dining room was never opened again and the wedding breakfast moldered away until eventually eaten by rodents.

Dickens allegedly turned the tragic and factual Eliza Donnithorne into the equally tragic and fictional Miss Havisham in Great Expectations in 1860 - but unlike his Miss Havisham, Eliza did not live the rest of her life in her wedding dress: she lived four decades as a recluse, but well-off and comfortably, seen only by her servants, doctor, solicitor and clergyman.

And bizarrely she kept the front door open, but secured by a chain, in the event her fiancé may one day return…

Eliza Donnithorne died in Camperdown Lodge in 1886 aged 60, and is buried in nearby Camperdown cemetery in the same grave as her father.

>> Read more travel stories.

Topics:  charles dickens travel travelling

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