Afterword to the Australian edition of Magic or Madness

The cemetery Tom and Reason visit in chapter nine is a real place: Camperdown Cemetery, in the grounds of St Stephen’s church in Newtown, Sydney. It’s full of overgrown graves with romantic stories behind them, gorgeous old trees, surrounded by high stone walls that keep the city at bay. I’ve been visiting and making up stories about the people buried there since I was a kid. I adore it. If you’re ever in Newtown you must go visit!

Tom and Reason visit the grave of Emily Eliza Donnithorne. She’s real too, and lots of people are convinced she was the inspiration for the character of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Her story is too much of a co-incidence for Dickens not to have known about her:

On Emily’s wedding day the groom never showed up. After hours and hours of waiting the vicar and all the guests went home. Emily Eliza shut the door behind them and made her servants lock it with a heavy chain. She refused to let the wedding feast be cleared away and never left the house again, using her servants to communicate with the world outside. The only visitors she would see were her doctor and lawyer.

I’ve always wondered how her servants felt about the arrangement. Did it give them more or less freedom than other servants? How depressing would it be living in a closed-up house?

Emily Eliza’s isn’t the only grave with a wonderful story. Napoleon’s harpist, Nicholas Charles Bochsa, is also buried there. He was in Australia to tour with his lover, the English opera singer, Anna Bishop, who had left her husband to be with him. As you can imagine it was all a major scandal. After their first Sydney concert Bochsa died and Anna was heart broken. She had a statue of herself weeping sculpted and erected over his grave, with the following inscription:

Sacred to the memory of Nicholas Charles Bochsa, Esq., who died January 6th, 1856, aged 65 years. This monument is erected in sincere devotedness by his faithful friend and pupil, Anna Bishop.
“Mourn him—mourn his harp—strings broken.
Never more shall float such music;
None could sweep the lyre like him.”

You’ll be relieved to hear that she ended up remarrying (her husband died not long after her beloved Nicholas) to a New York diamond merchant.

The most famous grave in the cemetery is marked by a ship’s anchor. It contains some of victims of the wreck of the Dunbar. The Dunbar, a passenger ship, was destroyed in a storm on the 20th of August in 1857 just as it was coming into Sydney Harbour.

Sydneysiders became aware that something horrible had happened when bodies and body parts started to wash up on the Gap and the North Shore. The Sydney Morning Herald was full of the story for weeks and weeks as more and more bodies were found, many of them locals with family and friends to mourn them. More than one hundred and twenty people died and only one crewman survived. A century later memorial services for the victims of the Dunbar were still attended by hundreds of people.

I’m definitely not the only one who thinks Camperdown Cemetery is special. An incident in November 2004 made that very clear. That night vandals got into the cemetery and smashed Emily’s gravestone into three pieces. It wasn’t an accident. The cross is made from solid marble, weighs a tonne, and was sunk deep into the ground. It would have taken at least two or three strong people to dislodge it and break it. The story was in the papers for several days. Sydneysiders were shocked and outraged. And not just Sydneysiders. I was in New York City at the time and heard the news from a friend in Lexington, Kentucky. Money for repairs came in from as far away as the Dickens Society in England. Before the end of the month Emily Eliza’s gravestone was repaired, and now looks almost as good as new.

If only the rest of the graveyard were in such good nick. The Camperdown Cemetery was consecrated in 1849, and, as you can imagine, time has taken its toll. Graves and fences are collapsing, inscriptions are wearing away, paths are overgrown. Some of that rundownness is what makes the place so fabulous. A cemetery wouldn’t be a cemetery if it was hospital clean. But if more repairs aren’t made soon some of the graves won’t be with us for much longer. The Dunbar memorial is sinking, and the inscription on it and Napoleon’s harpist’s grave are getting harder and harder to read.

If you’re ever in Newtown make sure to visit. If you love it as much as I do think about making a contribution to the cemetery’s repair and maintenance. You can send a cheque made payable to the Camperdown Cemetery Trust to:

Camperdown Cemetery Trust
189 Church St
Newtown 2042