Crushed Expectations: The origin of Dickens’s Great Expectations

The inspiration for one of Charles Dickens’s most famous characters- Miss Havisham, the aged recluse of Great Expectations may have been a rejected bride about 11,000 miles away.

In 1856, Miss Eliza Emily Donnithorne, of Cambridge Hall, Newton, in Sydney, Australia, was left standing alone on the altar, heart broken, on her wedding day. The incident traumatized her so much that she became a hermit in her own home. For the next 30 years, the eccentric, spinster-recluse never stepped out of her house.

The door to the room which was intended to host the wedding celebration, was slammed shut and locked, never to be opened again, leaving the decorations untouched and the wedding breakfast to consequently decay.

In Dickens’s novel Great Expectations, the young orphaned protagonist, Pip, describes his first meeting with Miss Havisham, who lives and dies in an almost identical way.

I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone.

-Pip in Great Expectations

There is no conclusive evidence that Dickens based Miss Havisham on Miss Donnithorne. But through his contacts with travelers and journalists he would have been among the first in England to hear of the recluse on the other side of the world.

Five years after Miss Donnithorne’s fiance was reported to have gone missing, the novel was published in 1861.

It incorporated her miserable life of solitude forever.

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