Last week I talked about adapting Mr Dickens is Coming to include a passage relating to the character of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations because the venue in the North East of England believes that Charles Dickens may have been inspired by a local story. This week therefore it is time to investigate that story and possibly to introduce you to the real Miss Havisham.
Charles travelled extensively throughout his career and wherever he stayed he would work, that is why so many old coaching inns have notices boasting that ‘Charles Dickens wrote such-and-such here’. Working for Charles involved not only sitting at a desk writing, but also observing and researching. Everywhere he went Dickens insisted on being shown prisons, hospitals, mills, factories, police forces, docks, workhouses and institutions of every description, and from these observations came the squalor or Oliver’s London, the detail of William Dorrit’s imprisonment, the tragedy of Dotheboys Hall and the World of inspector Bucket.
Then there were the characters: The eye that never sleeps was the slogan for the Pinkerton Detective Agency but may equally be used to describe Charles Dickens, for nothing or nobody, escaped his gaze.
When the reading tours began in 1858 Dickens performed in Sunderland and Newcastle and again in the latter city the following year and maybe it was on one of these visits that he stayed with his old friend George Cooper Apps at Cleadon House. Apps was a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle (I now perform annually at the Lit & Phil which makes the connection even more interesting to me), so must have enjoyed many stimulating discussions with the great author. Cleadon House was a large red-bricked building although in appearance was less like Satis House in Great Expectations but more like Gad’s Hill Place, Charles’ Kentish home that he admired since childhood and had recently purchased , so maybe that attracted him there too.
It seems on one occasion, let’s say as the two gentleman sat down in front of a roaring fire and sipped a glass of brandy or port, George decided to tell Charles of a family legend which may interest him:
A relative, a male relative, had been preparing for his wedding day and everything was laid out in readiness. The dining room was still as it had been the night before when the couple had shared a celebratory meal. Our un-named relative was ready to leave for the church when he received notice that his bride was abandoning him at the alter. Seized with grief and passion our jilted hero rushed through the house stopping all of the clocks and forever consigning the dining room to the state it had been during their last dinner together (WHAT did he say to her over their oysters?)
I wonder if George noticed a faraway look in Charles’s eye as he recited his story and I wonder if Dickens took in the ramshackle nature of the house in which he sat, with papers and books piled high everywhere and the hugely overgrown garden outside the windows.
If I were researching this more completely I would trawl through Dickens’ letters in search of references, I would travel to Newcastle and search through parish records to find out where bans had been read with no marital result. I would be able to gradually build a picture of the life of a man who became a recluse and whose clocks were stopped as they looked over the remnants of the last happy meal of his life.
Sadly I am not able to undertake such research at the moment and these details come from the work of Newcastle historian John Joe Cox who sadly passed away in 2010. Cox’s work on the history of Cleadon was taken up by Michael Bute who lectured on the subject. Bute is also dead and for now the subject lies dormant, but the coincidences of circumstance and timing make it easy to believe that in the North East of England Charles Dickens heard a story that led him to create one of his most famous characters.
Unless he heard it on The Isle of Wight.
A couple of weeks ago I was visiting my brother and as we drove past the little town of Bonchurch our conversation turned to our great great grandfather, for he had stayed in the town during the summer of 1849. Almost as a postscript to our chat Ian said ‘did you know that Charles might have based Miss Havisham on a lady who lived on the island?’
‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’ I replied, and Ian proceeded to tell me that a mutual friend of ours had suggested that a close read of Richard Hutchings ‘Dickens on an Island’ would throw new light on the subject.
I am fortunate to be the temporary custodian of that little volume (generously lent to me a year ago by my friend David Hawes , and woefully overdue for return for which I apologise), and as soon as I returned home speed read until I found the relevant chapter.
The story ran thus:
In the town of Ventnor, close to Bonchurch, is a house called Madeira Hall which was purchased by a Mr AG Burt in 1848. Understandably interested in the history of his new house Mr Burt started to do some research and uncovered an article published in ‘The Idler’ in 1902 by John Eyre and titled ‘Ventnor as a Health and Pleasure Resort’. Burt must have felt a sense of excitement when he saw the name of his new cottage mentioned:
‘Madeira Hall is worthy of notice, as it is described in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and its then proprietor was Miss Dick, who is supposed to be the Miss Havisham in that work.’
According to the two ladies who had sold the house to Mr Burt Miss Dick had been jilted on her wedding day (this in turn recounted to them by Miss Dick’s doctor). Distraught, she left her wedding feast untouched and drawing the shutters never again let the daylight into her house until her death in 1879. She was only 52.
However in 1849, when Dickens stayed at Winterbourne House in Bonchurch Miss Dick had yet to move into Madeira Hall and would not in fact take ownership until 1860 so Charles could not have heard of the story during his holiday, and according to his friend John Forster never returned to the island so would have been unlikely to discover this little gem.
However Mr Hutchings, the author of Dickens on an Island, did a little more digging and discovered that a Mr and Mrs Dickens actually visited Ventnor for a few days in November 1860. The details of that visit are intriguingly shrouded in mystery, thanks to the fact that ‘Mr and Mrs Dickens’ had separated two years before, but there are enough ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ to make it possible that Dickens heard the story of Miss Dick and thought ‘how perfect for my next novel!’
If I were researching this more completely I would trawl through Dickens’ letters in search of references, I would travel to Ventnor and search through parish records to find out where bans had been read with no marital result. I would find the copy of ‘The Idler’ and I would be able to gradually build a picture of the life of a woman who lived in Madeira Cottage and became a recluse and whose shutters were closed for the rest of her life as the remnants of her wedding feast remained untouched.
Sadly I am not able to undertake such research at the moment but it is easy to believe that Charles Dickens heard a story on the Isle of Wight that led him to create one of his most famous characters.
Unless he heard it from Sydney.
Eliza Donnithorne arrived in Sydney in 1846 to join her elderly father Judge James Donnithorne who had retired there heartbroken following the death of his wife and other daughters in the 1832 cholera outbreak in Calcutta, where he had been stationed with the East India Company.
The judge died in 1852 and the bulk of his estate was left to Eliza who instantly became quite a catch. Four years later Eliza was betrothed to George Cuthbertson and the wedding was to be held at St Stephen’s Church, just across the street from Camperdown Lodge, Eliza’s home. One would imagine that the wedding of such a woman would draw quite a crowd so there must have been widespread shock and scandal when Mr Cuthberston failed to arrive.
Eliza waited and the clock ticked on, and on, and on. The guests became more restless and indeed hungry until a few decided to make a start on the lavish wedding breakfast laying in wait across the street. With the realisation that her fiancé had stood her up Eliza ran back to Camperdown Lodge and threw the gluttonous guests out. Eliza’s staff were forbidden to clear away what remained of the feast and it was left on the table in case George should return. It has also been recorded that Eliza remained in her white wedding attire which gradually became rotten and threadbare. Children would run past the house terrified of the ghostly woman in white (maybe Wilkie Collins was also inspired by this particular tale?) within.
A local clergyman recalled visiting Eliza in her later years and noticing how decrepit everything was. He remarked:
‘There wasn’t a decent bit of furniture in it. Everything had gone to wrack and ruin; even the tablecloths were rotting and falling to pieces….’
That certainly sounds like Satis House.
How would Charles Dickens have heard about this particular legend, after all unlike Newcastle and Ventor he never visited Australia. The most likely answer is from the Australian Social advocate Caroline Chisolm who’s husband was also attached to the East India Company at the same time as Judge Donnithorne. Both families left India and headed to New South Wales within two years of each other so it is more than likely that they would have become friendly.
Dickens met with Caroline Chisolm in 1850 when she had returned to London for a short spell, and he was astounded by her non-existent housekeeping and the dirty faces of her many children. It seemed that Caroline was so busy being an activist on behalf of emigrants that she neglected her own family. A year after Dickens met her he created the character of Mrs Jelleby in Bleak House.
Dickens was always a champion of social activists and would have remained in contact with Chisolm, despite his literary lampooning of her. If the case of Eliza Donnithorne was as scandalous as I imagine it must have been there can be no doubt that she would have passed the news gleefully on.
If I were researching this more completely I would trawl through Dickens’ letters in search of his correspondence with Caroline Chisolm. I would travel to Sydney and delve into the archives of newspapers to find contemporary accounts of the scandal until I found full details of that fateful wedding day. I would try to find out more about Miss Donnithorne’s mysterious maid Sarah Bailey who guarded her mistress’s secret to the end of her days.
Sadly I am not able to undertake such research at the moment and all that I have written is thanks to a blog posted by Pauline Connolly to whom I apologise for what borders on plagiarism. But it is easy to believe that Charles Dickens was told a story from Sydney that led him to create one of his most famous characters.
I have outlined three very plausible stories, any one of which could have influenced Dickens, but I am sure that the truth lies in all of them. The nameless Apps ancestor stopped his clocks. Miss Dick shut out the daylight. Miss Donnithorne remained in her wedding gown. Miss Havisham did all three.
I don’t know the figures, but I can make an assumption that in an era when divorce was so much more difficult and scandalous than it is today the instances of people getting cold feet on the morning of a wedding must have been more common place, leaving a whole list of potential Miss Havishams around the globe.
If I were able to research this more completely it would make a fascinating book and if anyone would like to fund that research, I am ready to go!
I am indebted to the following:
Geoff Woodward for his information on the Newcastle connection
Richard J Huthchings for his work on Miss Dick on the Isle of Wight
Pauline Connolly for her research into Eliza Donnithorne
Lauren Speckmann said:
You have once again warmed my heart. Great Expectations is one of my favorites. I am humbled and honored to be your friend.
Cindy Sughrue said:
Wonderful blog! Cindy x
Dr Cindy Sughrue OBE
Charles Dickens Museum
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Thank you Cindy!
Heather Redmond said:
I believe I read yet another possible origin story relating to an article in one of Dickens’ own magazines. There probably is an entire book in these theories!
Heather, I believe you are correct, a short paper called ‘Where We Stopped Growing’ from Household Words in 1853 talks about the ‘White Woman of Berners Street’ – this whole phenomenon seems to have been quite a regular thing!