A pilgrimage around Willis’ Melbourne

Richard Holmes, one of my favourite biographers, once wrote:

The past does retain a physical presence for the biographer- in landscapes, buildings, photographs, and above all the actual trace of handwriting on original letters or journals.  Anything a hand has touched is for some reason peculiarly charged with personality… (Footsteps of a Romantic Biographer p. 67)

He describes a sort of ‘haunting’

an act of deliberate psychological trespass, an invasion or encroachment of the present upon the past, and in some sense the past upon the present.  And in this experience of haunting I first encountered- without then realizing it- what I now think of as the essential process of biography.” P. 66

As I walk around the streets of Melbourne, I find myself trying to reimagine the town that Willis would have seen.   Probably more so than in other cities, much of it was engulfed by the gold rush and its associated prosperity that followed some seven years after Willis left to return home to England.  Nonetheless, it’s a haunting that often accompanies me as I walk around my home town, and I’d like to share it with you.

Because so much has disappeared, I’m having to interpret “Willis’ Melbourne” very, very broadly and creatively.  Basically, if there is any connection with Willis and the years 1841-3 at all- an acquaintanceship in earlier years, an event in Willis’ time that occurred there, an earlier building that once stood there- then I’ll accept it as a glimpse of Willis.  It’s my own particular and rather idiosyncratic haunting.

3 responses to “A pilgrimage around Willis’ Melbourne

  1. The Athenaeum was the site of an assault on Lady Bowen, wife of the Governor, in 1876. A deluded fortune teller named Esther Gray, believing that Lady Bowen was an imposter who had cheated her of her birthright, launched herself at the governor’s wife as she alighted from her carriage.
    Lady Bowen, shocked and distressed, was driven back to Government House.
    Esther Gray was arrested, found to be insane, and confined to Kew Asylum. I have not been able to learn anything more about her, but would appreciate it if anyone can supply more information.

    • I just checked the indexof Jill Geise’s book ‘The Maddest Place on Earth’ to see if she had any more information, but it doesn’t appear that she does. It sounds like a Wilkie Collins novel!

  2. Barbara McNeill

    Thank you. That book sounds like something I must buy, lol

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