painter, teacher and novelist, was the eldest of the five daughters of Edward Heseltine, a bank manager, and his first wife and first cousin, Martha. An 1837 pencil sketch by Ellen (private collection) includes her sisters Rose and Isabella, the former to become Mrs Anthony Trollope, wife of the famous novelist. Ellen was baptised at Holy Trinity Church of England in Hull, Yorkshire, on 4 March 1812 but later converted to Roman Catholicism, possibly when studying in Paris. In 1874 she described herself as 'a lady both by birth and education’ and stated that after private study in England she had 'spent some time in fashionable schools in Paris. The Sacre Coeur was one of them.’ She probably met the Catholic Arthur Davitt from Drogheda, Ireland, in Paris where he was a 'Professor of Modern Languages’. They married at Jersey in 1845, but were in Ireland by 1847 when Arthur was appointed an inspector of schools. Ellen taught drawing in the Irish National Board’s Model School for Girls at Dublin in 1851-54.
Arthur and Ellen Davitt reached Victoria on 30 July 1854, having been respectively appointed principal and first superintendent of the new Model Schools in East Melbourne. Seconded by her husband, Ellen was the major figure behind the remodelling, enlargement and rebuilding of the school buildings (begun in 1852) to a more Irish model, which she detailed very fully. Her contribution was not appreciated by the architect, Arthur Ebden Johnson, who complained of 'the close and vindictive espionage’ practised by certain National Board officers during the last stage of building. She did not appeal to Martha Berkeley , who was matron at the school in the late 1850s, either; she reportedly commented that her superior was 'fit only for an actress’. J. Alex Allan in his The Old Model School: its history and romance 1852-1904 (Melbourne University Press, 1934) depicted Mrs Davitt as insufferable, her only good point, in his opinion, being her efficiency to which was added 'a certain harshness, priggishness and overbearing self esteem’.
Her painting skills were even less admired. At the first exhibition of the Victorian Society of Fine Arts in 1857 she showed a large oil Saint Cecilia , the models for the saint being several girls at the school. Offered for sale for an exceptionally ambitious £105, the painting drew a typically satirical response from the critic 'Christopher Sly’ ( James Neild ), who stated that while it was a tremendous thing for a woman to do, he wished Mrs Davitt would not do it any more. The Argus critic, James Smith, was even more caustic:
Venturi tells us that when the picture of St Cecilia which Raffaelle had painted to ornament the chapel of St Giovanni in Monte, at Bologna, was unpacked by the Bolognese artist, Francesca Francia, he was so overpowered by its transcendent merits, and so impressed with the inferiority of his own works, that he fell ill with grief, took to his bed and died. We sincerely hope that no such fatality will result from the exhibition of Mrs Davitt’s 'Cecilia’, which is in every respect an astonishing production, its anatomical details more particularly.
Mrs Davitt appears to have taken the critics’ advice to heart and is not known to have exhibited any further paintings.
When the budget of the National Board of Education was slashed, the Davitts agreed (under protest) to being discharged with £500 compensation. With this, Ellen opened 'The Ladies’ Institute of Victoria’ in Granite Terrace, Carlton Gardens in 1859. Arthur retired to Geelong in the final stages of the tuberculosis from which he died on 24 January 1860. The design of the 'handsome monument’ over his grave in the Catholic section of Geelong’s Eastern Cemetery is attributed to Ellen.
Mrs Davitt’s school failed and she seems to have taught for some years in the public school system; she was at Portland Common School 510 from 1 August 1862 to 30 September 1863. At Portland she gave a public lecture on 'The Influence of Art’, a topic that was part of her repertoire when she made a lecture tour of rural Victoria in 1863-64. Other lectures were on 'The Vixens of Shakespeare’ and 'Woman and her Mission’, the latter being described in the Hamilton Spectator as 'an essay in female heroism’ based on a wide range of historical and literary sources. When she lectured at Kyneton on 'Woman and her Mission’ and 'The Influence of Art’ in January 1864 her connection with Anthony Trollope was publicised in the Kyneton Observer . It may have helped promote her novels, which she began publishing as serials in Melbourne journals about this time. Her first effort, Edith Travers , has not been traced, but the next, Force and Fraud: A Tale of the Bush , was the lead serial in the first issue of the Australian Journal on 2 September 1865. This early 'whodunnit’, one of the first detective stories in English (Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone was not published until 1868), has a hero who is an artist and 'enthusiastic admirer of nature’ and painterly references to Tintoretto, Claude and Salvator Rosa are sprinkled throughout the text. Two lesser novel-length serials and a novella followed in the same journal within a year. Her last acknowledged serial for AJ , 'The Wreck of the Atlanta’, appeared in 1867, although others may have been published anonymously.
In 1874 Ellen Davitt successfully applied to rejoin the Victorian State Education system and was sent to Kangaroo Flat, near Bendigo – where once again she complained of inadequate buildings. She also fought with the head teacher. Anthony Trollope visited her (for an hour) in May 1875, but made no mention of the visit (or the relationship) in his book on his Australasian tour. Finally, Davitt’s health 'gave way’ altogether and she was forced to retire. Repeatedly applying for compensation – to no avail (it was refused because of the £500 she had received in 1859) – she stated on 15 November 1877 that she was supporting herself as a private teacher of 'Drawing and Languages’. She died of 'cancer and exhaustion’ on 6 January 1879 at 62 Nicholson Street, Fitzroy, and was buried beside her husband. In 1993 the Melbourne branch of Sisters in Crime added her name to Arthur’s memorial and published Force and Fraud in book form for the first time. The editor, Lucy Sussex, revealed the full story of Davitt’s Victorian life in her introduction.