Australia's Miss Havisham: the jilted lover who spent her dying days in a cave

  • @kathymarksoz

An Australian woman who disappeared 40 years ago and whose remains were found in a remote cave 12 years later has been identified this week as a tragic Miss Havisham figure who had been jilted by her lover.

The remains were found in 1981 by a hiker walking in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, on a folding lounge bed. Nearby were the trappings of domesticity: cutlery, a toothbrush, jewellery, and a vinyl record of The Last Waltz, in French.

It was a woman's body, and from newspapers and train tickets found in the cave, police deduced that she had died in 1971. But her name remained a mystery until now. After the case was reopened this year, investigators finally established her identity and relatives revealed the story of shattered love behind her disapperance.

Audrey Mountford, an artist, had been due to marry a Canadian; she had even converted to Catholicism for him. But, like the character in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, she had been jilted before reaching the altar. When she disappeared, her family assumed she had gone overseas to get over the upset and humiliation.

Instead, she had retreated to the cave, where it is believed she spent two years before dying, probably of exposure. A coroner who reviewed the case last week was uncertain of the cause or manner of her death. But according to The Sydney Morning Herald, police have ruled out suicide and foul play.

Ms Mountford, who was 49, was still wearing her mother's wedding ring when her body was found. Among her possessions were a bank passbook, handbags and a half-written letter, parts of which could still be deciphered. It read: "As work has been difficult to obtain since coming home in October 1968, I decided to revert to my old talent of art and modelling, thus I packed my haversack and came bush. So far have had a lovely time except for... being delayed by undue... [indecipherable] which sapped my strength. Have some lovely ideas re oils and pastels for the near future."

The artist's nephew, John Mountford, 65, told police that his aunt had met her fiancé while visiting Canada. But he had left her. "I don't think she ever recovered from that," he said. "She was the type to think with her heart, not her brain."

He described her as an adventurous person who had travelled to Africa and New Zealand. Somewhat "flighty", she would "breeze in and out" of their lives. "I know that being left by a man would have affected her very badly. She was a dreamer and a bit unrealistic, so for her to go and live in a cave is something I would believe suited her personality."

The last family member to see her alive was her younger sister, Nola Stewart, now 84. after Audrey left some clothes at her house. Ms Stewart told The Herald that it had been a shock finally to learn her fate. "Actually it saddens me more to find out what happened to her," she said. "I thought she was living somewhere and not bothering to get back in touch with me."