Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 23, 2012

The Recluse (2012), by Evelyn Juers

Ever heard of Eliza Emily Donnithorne  (1821-1886)?

I bet you have.  You know her as Miss Havisham, from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.  She’s that ice-queen who was jilted at the altar, and became a recluse.  She wore her wedding dress till she died and she lived her life amid the detritus of her wedding banquet.  She wreaked her revenge on boys and men with the beautiful Estella, brought up to break their hearts.   Eliza Emily Donnithorne who lived most of her life in the Sydney suburb of Newtown, was the model for this unforgettable character.

Well, maybe … maybe not.

How easy it is to become fascinated by a recluse! Most of us who live and work in a busy world – even introverts like me – can’t imagine shutting oneself off from the world and living an entirely solitary life.  Is it a manifestation of mental illness?  Why do it?  Why do it for so long?  And how? How to manage being left alone? What kind of personality resists the inevitable pressure to ‘get over it’, to ‘get out and get a life’?  What kind of personality takes a rejection (if such there was) so much to heart that the solitary life is the only response?  (But, should we perhaps mind our own business?)

Enter Evelyn Juers, author of the collective biography House of Exile: The Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann, a book which explored the elusive lives of these and other notable Germans.  In The Recluse (another in the Giramondo Shorts series) she sets out to investigate the maiden and the myth – and finds herself pondering the contradictions that arise when a biographer tries to write the very private life of a recluse. 

In a compact 128 pages, Juers unravels the a trail – never ceasing to remind us that much of the life of Eliza Emily Donnithorne is necessarily conjecture.  Juers uses expressions like ‘it is supposed’, ‘it’s likely’, ‘according to’, ‘could have been’, ‘if she was’ so that the reader is ever-conscious of the journey of the author as sleuth, trying to make sense of an historical record that’s incomplete.  Anyone who’s ever fiddled with family history has had (if they are lucky) the same experience of encountering the unknowable; the roadblock around some ancestor whose life is shielded from the impertinent gaze of the present.  Ancestors like this, for all the frustration they cause, are generally much more interesting than respectable people who live normal lives and leave a conveniently transparent paper trail behind them.

I hesitate to summarise here what is known about Eliza, because that’s not really the point of this essay.  The product of obviously extensive research, The Recluse at first augments the scraps of information that are known with the kind of documentary gossip found in fan mags when the celebrity won’t co-operate with an interview.  The frustrated journalist turns sideways, and interviews the neighbours, writes an article about the subject’s dog, or old school friend, or shopping habits.  These snippets are lapped up with enthusiasm by the voracious public who are desperate to know about the idol, and whether it’s true or irrelevant or trivial seems not to matter.

So it is with Eliza Emily Donnithorne, the celebrity recluse of 19th century Sydney.  She intrigues us.  Through the pages of The Recluse I found myself enjoying all kinds of odd snippets (that might be) about her, despite never losing the sense that Eliza had retained her privacy and Juers was merely indulging my curiosity.  For example, as a childhood resident of St Agnes in Cornwall, I was fascinated to learn the legend of the Cornish Agnes whose life emulated the Roman St Agnes, protector of chastity and virgins – a digression that’s (kind-of) relevant because the family of Eliza’s father James once held property there and the tale is one of a persecuted maiden exacting an awesome revenge.  Irresistible, eh?

We find out who else (probably) lived in the house/s Eliza lived in, in a life that began in South Africa and then took the imperial trail through India, England and Australia.  And we enjoy more irresistible speculations: Did she meet Dickens when he was her neighbour in Twickenham, long before her allegedly broken heart?  She must have, surely?  And living where she did, she would have done this, and that and the other, would she not? She is known to have been a great reader, she must have read these Gothic novels, and those, too?

The scenario for Eliza’s tragedy (if such it was) is Sydney, but first we read the gossipy anecdotes about her father’s friends.  James Donnithorne was calling himself a judge by the time he’d made it to the colony, but Sydney society being what it was, he counted among his pals a motley assortment: a bigamist who was (probably) the illegitimate son of Prince Frederick, son of George III; a pardoned convict and ex-duellist doctor-politician; and his business partner Ward who mismanaged his property and caused a great deal of financial angst.  In one of his homes, the one in Cumberland Street, James Donnithorne’s neighbours were Conrad Martens the artist and Dr James Mitchell whose book-collecting son grew up to be Sydney’s Mitchell library benefactor.   Eliza’s story becomes even more elusive here, lost among the chatter about servant squabbles that made the press and her father’s love life and unsuccessful career as a squatter …

Eliza, however, (still back in England) reappears in the narrative as a possible witness to and financial beneficiary of the gruesome suicide of her uncle.  Juers thinks that this event provided the cash and the motivation to leave England and join her father in Sydney in 1846.  She was 25, an age said by some to confer spinsterhood on the unmarried woman.  Did she, didn’t she then have an inconclusive engagement to ‘the Member for Durham’ (north of the Hunter Valley) as reported in a gossip column in Bell’s Life in 1848?  Was she looking for love, or was Daddy trying to marry her off, perhaps to ward off someone even less suitable?  Or did Eliza perhaps do the jilting?  By the look of things she was better off without this fellow, his precarious finances and his mistress and his illegitimate son, but the usual church records of wedding banns don’t support the gossip anyway.

In the chapter entitled ‘Eavesdroppers 1: So what happened?’ Juers presents an hilarious summation of the stories that have swirled around Eliza ever since.  Reading this chapter is a salutary but most engrossing lesson on the way rumour and innuendo take on a ‘Chinese-whispers’ life of their own, in marked contrast to ‘Eavesdroppers 2: What really happened?’ in which Juers’ research uses Eliza’s own correspondence with her financial advisers.  This reveals an Eliza who lived a life of dignity and apparent contentment.  Eliza was certainly in control of her money, she was in regular contact with family and friends,  she was a generous benefactor to an assortment of causes, and despite frequent exhortations to return to (more civilised) England, she was determined to stay where she was.  Juers is able to identify the names of her doctor, her bookseller and her servants, and from Eliza’s Will, that she had a collection of ‘curiosities‘ (though not what they were).  She made generous bequests to family, friends and servants, and left an annuity to keep her six animals and birds ‘in the same state of comfort’ that they were used to (but the type of pets these were remains elusive).

The images of death, decay and hysteria from Great Expectations’  Satis House don’t seem to fit the real Eliza:  Juers shares a snippet of oral history from historian Chris Meader that appears to demolish the Havisham myth:

Before her marriage in 1909 my Nana was a tailoress in Newtown.  She was told by an old woman who had been a seamstress in a city dressmaking form that Eliza Donnithorne had clothes made and altered once a year at Camperdown Lodge.  She was never measured but was seen.  One of the head dressmakers would go to Camperdown Lodge and be given material – she mentioned bales of silk in beautiful colours.  She also mentioned the indoor and outdoor aviaries.  My impression from these childhood stories was that Camperdown Lodge was not quite the dismal, gloomy place that Satis House was in the book. Eliza had a liking for exotic colours and objects in her surroundings. (p126)

This Eliza also had a liking for books, and she lived through the great flowering of 19th century British literature as well as the seclusion of Queen Victoria after the premature death of Prince Albert in 1861.  Juers asks: when the novels of the Brontës made their way to Australia, she did read them, and perhaps about their reclusive lives in Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography?  Did she come across the seducer Captain Arthur Donnithorne in George Eliot’s Adam Bede, or (more deliciously) did she take the journal All the Year Round and recognise herself serialised in Great Expectations? (Or did Dickens not have Eliza in mind at all?)

We don’t know – and obviously if Juers hasn’t fossicked it out with all this research, we never will and must be content with that.

The Recluse concludes with a meditation on the solitary life.  We live in a time where the expectation to join in and be part of the community is more pervasive than ever:

Because social cohesion is a fragile construct that’s easily undone, we’re taught to uphold it by every possible means, through appropriate body language and respect for cultural and familial kinships, and increasingly a sense of global responsibility.  We’re sustained by communalities and we expect – and are expected – to live companionably and more or less collectively.  We question our affiliations only when they become treacherous, or superfluous.

Affable types – garrulous, cheerful, busily hobnobbing, team playing – don’t really get it: that for some people self-exile is desirable, part necessity, part pleasure, it’s the fork in the road considered, and taken.  It’s not something for which one seeks redemption, nor is it necessarily an extreme mental state. (p138)

By coincidence I have just recently read about Melanie Joosten’s book Berlin Syndrome winning the Kathleen Mitchell Literary Award, which I’d never heard of.  I Googled this award, and found a page about it at The Trust Company, which administers it.  This page (which has been removed in the interim) announced that not much was known about Kathleen Mitchell, which made me feel rather indignant.  How could the literary community not know anything much about a book-lover and supporter of Australian writing who left such a generous bequest (a biennial $15,000) to support emerging writers?  Now, having read The Recluse, I feel a little more sanguine.  Perhaps it was Kathleen Mitchell’s wish…

Author: Evelyn Juers
Title: The Recluse
Publisher: Giramondo, 2012
ISBN: 9781920882884
Source: Review copy courtesy of Giramondo

Fishpond: The Recluse (Giramondo Shorts Series)
Or direct from Giramondo


  1. what a interesting book I didn’t know it was based on a actual person recluses make great character ,there was a us book about the two brothers who lived as recluses in a huge house in the centre of new york ,all the best stu


  2. As I’m reading All That I Am at the moment, I’m planning to re-read House of Exile soon. Thanks for your review of Juers’ latest Lisa, it sounds like I will have to squeeze it in as well!


    • It’s amazing how such a trim little book generates so mcuh to think about, I’ll be interested to see what you think of it too.


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