A History of Solitude, by David Vincent

Joe Moran is intrigued by a deep history that has gained unexpected relevance at a time of self-isolation

April 30, 2020
Person alone looking out to sea
Source: Getty

The pianist Glenn Gould once made a series of radio documentaries, the “Solitude Trilogy”, set in the Canadian north. The first and most memorable programme, The Idea of North (1967), traced a thousand-mile journey he took on the Muskeg Express from Winnipeg to Churchill in subarctic Northern Manitoba.

Gould believed that solitude was a precondition for creativity, and that the most enduring art came out of it. But he also understood that his idea of the north as a place of solitude was romantic hokum. His interviewees, old hands who had lived for years in Canada’s northern third, reminded him that its harshness and isolation meant that people stuck close together. Gould, who did not even like the cold much, knew that you could just as easily experience solitude in a hotel suite with room service, as he often did. “There are probably people living in the heart of Manhattan,” he noted, “who can manage every bit as independent and hermitlike an existence as a prospector trampling the lichen-covered tundra.” Solitude, you see, is complicated.

It is also an essentially modern concept, and its etymology reveals our suspicion of it. The English word “solitude” derives from the Latin “solitudo” (solitariness, loneliness, destitution), which also means “desert”. The word’s first citation in the OED is from Chaucer, but it has only been in common use in English since the late 16th century, with the rise of modern ideas of the self and private life.

In A History of Solitude, David Vincent explores “how people over the last two centuries have conducted themselves in the absence of company”. For those of us now enduring unexpected self-isolation and social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak, this exploration could hardly be more topical. The author of previous wide-ranging histories of secrecy and privacy, Vincent uses solitude as a way of thinking through the relationship between self and society in the modern era. His examples of solitude are mostly British, with the odd foray into continental Europe and North America.

The book begins in 1791 with the first major modern study of solitude by Johann Georg Zimmermann, physician to George III. Zimmermann carefully distinguished between beneficial and malign withdrawal from society. Most subsequent writers and thinkers have taken his lead in arguing that solitude, while healthy in small doses, needs to be carefully managed and even policed. For it can easily tip over into loneliness, which Vincent nicely defines as “failed solitude”. The issue of how to be alone has remained, he writes, “a lightning conductor in the response to modernity” – a modernity that values interaction and sociability while offering ever more opportunities for privacy and isolation.

The author approaches solitude via an ambitious array of subjects. Among solitude’s many modern manifestations, he explores the role of the invalid in the Victorian home; the rise of angling as the most popular British participation sport; the potential for solitude in the darkened cinema auditorium; the doomed Strand cigarette campaign (“You’re never alone with a Strand”); and the Sony Walkman’s ability to create a solitary, immersive soundscape for the listener. Vincent has a great eye for small, illuminating detail – exploring anxieties over empty, solitary moments in the 19th-century day, for instance, through the invention of single-player games such as patience and solitaire. If this eclectic approach means that the concept of solitude assumes a certain conceptual bagginess, it also usefully shows how solitude is woven into wider social structures.

The book’s inclusive approach pays off wonderfully in a chapter on walking, “Solitude, I’ll walk with thee” (the title of which comes from John Clare, an impassioned poet-walker). Vincent argues that in the 19th century, the last great era of pedestrian travel, walking was a means of escaping the crowded domestic interior: “The front door that kept strangers out could also release the occupants from each other’s company.” But lone, aimless urban walking tended to arouse suspicions, which could be allayed by taking a dog along. Over the course of the century, dog walking turned into a quintessential urban practice, and dogs came to be seen as emotional support for the solitary. Taxing dogs was partly an attempt to police their urban owners – rural working dogs being exempt.

Many of the new solitary pastimes of the Victorian era were double-edged – not simply, in Vincent’s words, “solitude policed by concentration”, but also a sign that the walls of the home were becoming increasingly porous. Stamp collecting, like letter-writing itself, was “a means of connecting a private individual with wider networks”. Gardening was inherently solitary because “two people could not dig the same patch of soil”. But competitive gardening, in the form of vying for prizes at artisan flower shows, turned this lonely effort into a social enterprise.

Solitariness was often troubling and contentious. The revival of walled religious communities in the Victorian era brought these anxieties to the fore. The first Catholic sisterhoods were founded as anti-Popery gained traction, powered by a rise in Irish immigration after the Famine and the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in England. Pentonville Prison, which pioneered solitary confinement, opened in 1842, at around the same time as a boom in convent building. The anti-Catholic mind often linked these two kinds of walled communities. Solitary confinement also initially had a progressive and Christian flavour (prison reformers believed that silence and solitude might offer the inmate a path to repentance). But it soon came to be seen, with Charles Dickens’ help, as the bleakest and cruellest form of punishment.

In 2017, as Vincent was writing this book, Tracey Crouch was appointed the UK’s first “minister for loneliness”. His is therefore a timely study that speaks to contemporary disquiet about the rise of loneliness in an atomised, digital age. Yet, again, Vincent shows that these worries have a long history. As early as 1930, G. K. Chesterton was satirising the emergence of loneliness anxiety and the demand that “something should be done at once to link up all these lonely individuals in a chain of sociability”. The British government first identified loneliness as a policy problem during the Second World War, when it began to survey morale on the Home Front.

Vincent takes fears of a loneliness epidemic seriously. He recognises the modern consumer age as one in which collective pursuits take on more solitary forms. He traces this back to the rise of home-consumed canned beer in the 1960s and the availability of wine and spirits in off-licences and supermarkets, and the dispersal of solitary pursuits into bedrooms, partly as a result of the more generous spatial requirements of the 1961 Parker Morris report on housing.

But Vincent also shows that many of these developments are simply continuations of the complex, networked solitude of modern industrial society, trends already visible in the 19th century. Few people today are as isolated, he speculates, as the housewife in the 19th and much of the 20th century, forced to endure long hours of solitary drudgery. Fears about a loneliness epidemic are thus “reformulations of dilemmas that have surfaced in prose and verse for more than two millennia”. In this well-judged history of a currently pressing preoccupation, then, Vincent performs a useful public service: he recognises the uniqueness of our contemporary problems, but gives them the calming and edifying perspective of context.

Joe Moran is professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University. His books include Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness (2016).

A History of Solitude
By David Vincent
Polity Press, 344pp, £25.00
ISBN 9781509536580
Published 24 April 2020

The author

David Vincent, professor emeritus of history (and former pro vice-chancellor) at the Open University, was born in Banbury and studied at the University of York. There, he recalls, “two of the staff, Gwyn Williams and James Walvin, turned an interest in history into a passion and put me on a path to research. I moved to Cambridge to do a PhD, where I was largely self-taught, benefiting mostly from the company of the University Library tea room…”

The topic of his thesis and early publications, Vincent goes on, was the then largely unexplored “genre of working-class autobiography”. This led him to “the coming of mass literacy in Britain, and then in Europe”, where he happened upon “the great postal espionage scandal of 1840” and began to “work more broadly on the growth of official secrecy from the early 19th century to the 2000 Freedom of Information Act, which was being debated as I wrote. It was a short step to the topic of privacy, then being opened up by scholars as an experience that both defined the experience of modernity and was everywhere threatened by the digital revolution.” An even shorter intellectual step took him from privacy to solitude.

Today, like many others, Vincent has been forced to self-isolate. So what historical insights can he bring to the current crisis?

In response, he points to what is now “a critical line between solitude and loneliness. The latter, often damaging, experience, occurs when individuals are forced to live alone, experience their own company for longer than they intend or wish, lack the resources to engage with available forms of support, and have no confidence in the competence or justice of official policy.” Yet given that “the resources for solitary living have expanded immensely since the early 20th century, we are much better placed to cope with the crisis than many commentators suggest”.

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: When does alone become lonely?

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