By Evelyn Juers
SAY ''Miss Havisham'' and even someone who hasn't read Great Expectations or seen a screen version of that Dickens classic might still know who you mean: an image will rise of the jilted bride in her tattered gown and veil, glaring from her seat at the table where the ruins of her wedding feast still provide pickings for tiny creatures, and the unlit chandelier overhead is festooned with spiderwebs and dust.
Less well known is the story, much disputed and told with many variations, that there was a real-life model for the character of Miss Havisham: a colonial Sydney woman named Eliza Donnithorne, who lived a reclusive life in a house in Sydney's Newtown called Camperdown Lodge.
She is buried alongside her father in the Camperdown Cemetery, and it's here Evelyn Juers chooses to begin her strange and beautiful little book, which she calls a ''biographical essay''.
As a young student, Juers would sometimes cut classes and head instead to the cemetery, where she would find a pleasant spot to read. This is where she first read Great Expectations, whose plot she recounts briefly and then summarises in a sentence that typifies the subtlety and charm of her own writing: ''Pirouettes of fortune link up the characters' nastinesses, genialities and genealogies.''
Juers' purpose is not to cobble together a racy narrative out of fragments of fact and rumour that best suit the purpose, but rather to clear this material away to make room for documented facts, which she then digs deep to find.
The result is a kind of anti-narrative, a story that branches off in all directions: suppositions are squashed, legends debunked, theories disproved and cul-de-sacs cheerfully explored.
She finds there's no evidence of the intended wedding, there's significant uncertainty about the date and there's no evidence of the identity of the groom. Eliza, she concludes, was probably just a recluse by temperament, a lover of books and animals who was neither psychologically disturbed nor fully cut off from the world.
Using an extraordinary assortment of sources, Juers assembles the facts of Eliza's life. Among other things, she puts it in the context of the lives and work of Dickens, Darwin and other Victorian luminaries, sketches a history of reading and bookselling in the Sydney of the time, and even gives the dates and places, where she has them, of the births, deaths and marriages of minor players in the drama.
This is so different from the way traditional biography seeks to stitch together the fragments and smooth over the bumps in the story of a life that it leaves the reader wondering where Juers is going with it, but eventually all is explained: she sees her project as a collection, which is itself a very Victorian activity. ''It's in this spirit that I have gathered and investigated and imagined Eliza's history … biography as vastness, minuteness, contiguity.''
It is, she says, ''a form of Wunderkammer'', a cabinet of curiosities. Her commentary on her discoveries is leavened with quiet, understated humour, as when she describes the accounts of the household in Eliza's youth: ''Their butchers' bills are not reading matter for the faint-hearted.''
It is clear Juers is all too aware of the heavily gendered nature of this story in all its variations, and of the way its imaginative power in Great Expectations and its persistence in local Sydney tales go on reasserting the central importance of marriage in the lives of women.
It's equally clear she well knows how some readers wilfully assume a simple correlation between fiction and real life and are always determined to find one, rather than understanding the motley assortment of small details, scraps, dream images, old stories and new ideas from which most fiction writers assemble their characters and plots.
These things are not argued overtly, but they are implicit in her delicately forensic exploration of the facts.
■Kerryn Goldsworthy's Adelaide (New South) is shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Literary awards.