The Real Miss Havisham
Several originals have been put forward as the inspiration for Miss Havisham, although Dickensian studies have yet to settle on one precise individual as being the exact source. It’s also possible that Dickens may have based his spinster on a combination of real-life counterparts.
A woman called Eliza Emily Donnithorne (1827-1886) is one of the most prominent. She was an Australian whose life does bear an intriguing resemblance to that of Miss Havisham’s. Eliza was jilted at the altar in 1846 by a shipping clerk called George Cuthbertson. She never left her vast estate since that day and became the focal point for much local inquisitiveness. Some scholars regard the resemblances between Eliza and Miss Havisham’s lives as merely coincidental, yet others have suggested scenarios in which Dickens could have been familiar with her story. Perhaps the most credible of these is that he read about her in the press, as he never actually visited Australia himself.
Literary historians have also put forward another prototype for Miss Havisham, this time a British woman named Elizabeth Parker, who resided at Chetwynd House in Newport, Shropshire. It has been advanced that whilst staying at a nearby hotel in Newport, Dickens was inspired by Elizabeth’s reclusive disposition in his portrayal of Miss Havisham.
A man who used to live in Cleadon - a village in the North East of England - is another model for Miss Havisham. As with Donnithorne and Parker, he was also forsaken on his wedding day, and subsequently ordered all the clocks in his house to be stopped, although only for the duration of the year after he was stood-up. Some scholars assert that Cleadon House, a building Dickens stayed in whilst visiting the town, is a prototype for Satis House. However Dickens’ biographer John Forster affirms that Miss Havisham’s estate was modelled on Restoration House, a building in Rochester, Kent.
A minor novelist and contemporary of Dickens called James Payn (1830-1898) informed the author of a woman he was acquainted with whose style of living beared several similarities to Miss Havisham. Payn maintained that in Dickens portrayal of her in Great Expectations, the author didn’t exaggerate her character at all.
In an article from Household Words called ‘When We Stopped Growing’, Dickens relates an account of a woman he remembered from his London childhood who used to wander around Berners Street dressed completely in white. It is notable that this particular individual also bears some telling similarities to the titular figure from Wilkie Collins’ influential detective story The Woman in White (1860). It seems that the woman Dickens witnessed had been cast off on her wedding day, although the author isn’t especially sympathetic in his account of her, describing the woman as “a conceited old creature, cold and formal in manner”, and speculating that her intended was probably well rid.
[Image: John McLenan, 1861]