I’ve been writing a bit about first loves, first kisses lately. It got me thinking about one of Sydney’s most famous ghosts – a woman who never got over her first love. In fact, she died from grief as a result of losing her love.
For those of you have read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations you will be familiar with the character of Miss Havisham. A woman jilted at the altar, she lives the rest of her life in mourning, going mad with grief, dressing only in the wedding dress she was wearing when she discovered her lover had gone, refusing to let the wedding banquet be cleared away.
When I first read this novel I was entranced by the character of Miss Havisham. Her eccentricity and extremism appealed to me, but at the back of my mind I thought: ‘No one would ever react like that in real life.’
Boy, was I wrong. It is a widely held belief that Charles Dickens based the character of Miss Havisham upon the very real and very tragic Eliza Donnithorne.
Eliza was the daughter of James Donnithorne, an East India Company Judge and Master of the Mint in Calcutta. Some versions of the story state that he arrived in Australia to retire in 1836, bringing Eliza with him. Her mother had died of cholera.
James and young Eliza settled in Camperdown Lodge in the Sydney suburb of Newtown.
in 1856, Eliza prepared to marry. Her wedding was to be the event of the season. The banquet was laid out, the guests assembled, the coaches prepared to escort her the short distance to St Stephen’s church. But the groom never appeared.
Afterwards, she was left in the house alone, except for two faithful servants and the prepared wedding feast. She refused to let the banquet be cleared away, even when the rats took up residence on the table, claiming her love would return, remaining in her wedding dress. He never appeared and she died alone in 1886.
Eliza is buried in Camperdown cemetery, yet despite dying a wealthy lady as a result of all the property she inherited from her father, she did not have a headstone of her own. Her name appears on her father’s headstone, right at the bottom – Eliza Emily Donnithorne – in small lettering, as if an afterthought.
Now this is where the story gets interesting.
When I was a student I lived in Newtown in the same street as the cemetery. My next-door neighbour, an elderly lady named Pearl believed that the ghost of Eliza Donnithorne walked in the cemetery grounds at night.
The church caretaker lived in this charming little cottage which still stands today. A friend of Pearl’s, he also believed Eliza walked at night.
When Pearl’s grandfather was a boy he had lived near Eliza’s home, Camperdown Lodge. All the local children believed it was haunted and crossed the street rather than walk directly in front of it. Once Pearl’s grandfather had peered through one of the windows and had seen a woman inside with long, bedraggled hair, moaning to herself. In 1920 Camperdown Lodge was burned to the ground and it was shortly after that local residents reported seeing a ghost in the cemetery.
Many of the locals still call this pathway, Eliza’s Walk. Many have seen a ghostly figure in a wedding dress trudging up and down the pathway on dark, moonless nights.
I was coming home from Uni one night. It was late, very dark. Imagine this pathway lit only by moonlight. The shadows were dense. I felt if I stepped into the cemetery I would plunge into nothingness, into a place where I would instantly be lost.
I can’t be sure if I was imagining it, it could quite easily have been a trick of the light, but I thought I saw her – Eliza herself. For the briefest of moments she stood framed by the moonlight, her white dress incandescent, otherworldly. I rubbed my eyes and she was gone. I still laugh about it, thinking I was a sentimental fool.
Yet every time I pass the cemetery I think of Eliza in her despair and her loneliness and I wonder if her longing for her love has trapped her in this place, destined to forever walk until her love reappears, her long, white dress dragging in the dirt.
A big THANK YOU to Puddock from The View From The Pond for giving me this wonderful award last month.
And of course, it is only now that I am getting around to thanking her. I discovered Puddock’s blog when I was doing a search for good blogs from the UK and hers came up. Based in Scotland, it is often a walk down memory lane for me when I read her blog. Just as often I leave feeling a little teary.
Thank you for this honour, dear Puddock. I am very grateful.