Friday, September 24, 2010

A Possible Basis for Miss Havisham

Today's random historical nonsense bit comes from The History Place, which I discovered on doing random Google searches. The story's very, very sad, but is a potential basis for the character of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. The full text is taken from The History Place's Strange but True! page:
Jilted in 1846 by shipping clerk George Cuthbertson, 21 year old Eliza Emily Donnithorne was condemned to a life more suiting a bat than a pretty heiress of aristocratic birth.

Probably driven away by her overbearing father, Cuthbertson would die in India during the Sepoy rebellion in 1858, while his fiancée in Sydney waited anxiously for his return.

Suffering a nervous breakdown due to her abandonment, Eliza insisted the wedding feast be left untouched on the long dining room table in the grand mansion, Camperdown Lodge, ready for festivities and ceremonies to commence once the absent groom arrived.

Her orders were complied with by her father, retired Judge James Donnithorne, over concern for her state of mind. Those concerns were amplified by Eliza's refusal to wear anything except her wedding dress as she whiled away the days waiting for her groom. Unknown to all, Eliza was in the early stages of pregnancy.

To avoid further scandal, her newborn baby was spirited away by the Judge who arranged for its adoption while falsely telling his daughter of its death. This blow, coupled with the subsequent death of her father, sent the pretty young woman over the edge.

After her father's funeral, all but two servants were dismissed. The imposing estate would be sealed off from the world for the next 40 years. Windows and shutters were permanently closed, drapes drawn, and the house was blanketed in total darkness. Expensive European paintings and furnishings were gradually blanketed in the dust of decades, falling to ruin anonymously while weeds and overgrowth consumed the outside of the once stately house.

A generation of neighbors were born, lived and died, believing the house to be abandoned. Oblivious to the passage of time, Eliza grew old. Her wedding dress decayed and hung off her withering body as she drifted like a ghost through the dusty ruins of her world.

She refused to leave the grounds or see anyone except her lawyer and minister, who described rotting chairs collapsing under them as the mistress of the house held court, sitting solemnly in her discolored wedding dress while candles cast eerie shadows on the walls. Merciful death finally arrived in 1886 when Eliza died of heart disease, a fitting end for a woman who suffered so long from a broken heart.

A generous woman, her donations helped build the local church where she was buried, while the bulk of her considerable estate was left to charities and her trusty servants.

It is believed novelist Charles Dickens heard of her abandonment and subsequent reclusion through one of his sons and based the character Miss Havisham in his novel Great Expectations on her.
Like I said, it's a sad story and yet one that is fascinating all the same. Reminds me of the sailor's widows in New England who had the widow's walk around the top of their ocean-side homes. I seem to recall more than a few widows who would go up to the roof of their home to watch for the husband that never came home.


Kelly Breakey said...

That was just sad...but I always learn new and wonderful things when I stop by.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Wow. That poor woman. How awful. But it's fascinating to imagine Charles Dickens being moved by her story. :-)

dolorah said...

Sad but interesting. I guess everyone has to get inspiration from somewhere.