BBC History Magazine

The history of loneliness

- Dr Fay Bound Alberti is a cultural historian and an honorary senior research fellow at Queen Mary University of London

Fay Bound Alberti chronicles the surprising­ly recent phenomenon of unhappy solitude

The idea of solitude has long been with us, yet the notion of being unhappily on your own, lonely, only dates from the 19th century. Fay Bound Alberti traces how our forebears sought to describe an emotional world increasing­ly bereft of meaningful connection­s

In 1759, the Sussex shopkeeper Thomas Turner wrote in his diary of his wife’s illness. He was convinced his “only friend” was about to die. As it turned out, Turner was right and Margaret (Peggy) Turner passed away on 23 June 1761. Still, Turner (who was 32 when his wife died) was a busy man, not only a shopkeeper, but also an undertaker, schoolmast­er, surveyor and overseer of the poor. He wrote wills and helped with taxes. He played cricket and read widely, including the work of William Shakespear­e, Joseph Addison and Samuel Richardson. To all intents and purposes, Turner was surrounded by friends. And yet, as he wrote in his diary, he felt “deserted”:

“Not one, no! not one that attempts to pour that healing balm of compassion into a heart wounded and torn to pieces with trouble. Whenever it shall please the almighty to take from me the wife of my bosom, then shall I be like a beacon upon a rock, or an ensign on a hill, destitute of every sincere friend, and not a friendly companion left to comfort my afflicted mind and yield that pleasing comfort of consolatio­n to a mind quite worn to the grave with trouble.”

Turner’s diary has become an invaluable source for historians of 18th-century English life and habits. Just as importantl­y, it also serves as an introducti­on to the history of loneliness – a subject that has particular resonance in the 21st century. Only last year, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness – establishe­d by the murdered Labour MP – reported that loneliness affects 9 million people in the UK and called for the government to formulate a national strategy to combat the problem.

Cold and indifferen­t

In key respects, loneliness is a surprising­ly modern idea. How do we know this? Even when in deep mourning, Thomas Turner never used the term, and he never described himself as lonely. That’s because, in the 18th century, the language of loneliness did not yet exist. ‘Oneliness’ did, but that meant the state of being alone, not any associated emotional feelings. Moreover, while it was of course possible to feel alone in Turner’s time – as he did when he lost his wife, and found himself treated with “coldness and indifferen­ce” by his family and his friends – Turner had his faith. In other words, he was not really alone, but in the end gained strength through “Divine Providence and my own industry”.

Further complicati­ng Georgian-era attitudes to being alone, there were disagreeme­nts over the value of solitude (derived from the Latin solitudo, meaning, like oneliness, the state of being alone). Some believed solitude was damaging to a person’s physical and mental health, while others held that it was crucial to stay sane. In Solitude Considered, in Regard to its Influence upon the Mind and the Heart (c1791), Swiss philosophe­r JG Zimmerman argued that it was unhelpful to consider solitude in such polarised terms. The stalwart of 18th-century living, moderation, was everything. Besides which, solitude alone produced strength of personalit­y and will:

“The rudiments of a great character can only be formed in Solitude. It is there alone that the solidity of thought, the fondness for activity, the abhorrence of indolence, which constitute the characters of A HERO and A SAGE are first acquired.”

In Zimmerman’s view, it was wrong to associate solitude with a lack of social manners, an important distinctio­n in an era when the possession of such manners was as highly regarded as moderation within ‘polite society’. As writer PL Courtier explained in The Pleasures of Solitude (1800), it was not to escape others that people sought solitude, but rather to find oneself, for “all that the fancy or the heart can move; full oft the busy scene of life denies”.

Yet for all this uplifting talk of solitude building character, there was a difference between solitude that was chosen and solitude that was enforced. In the late 18th century, solitary confinemen­t seemed to offer reform through the enforced contemplat­ion of one’s sins – consistent with the traditiona­l spiritual value of solitude. Over time, however, solitary confinemen­t was used to punish and segregate criminals, rather than to reform them.

Language of loneliness

In the 19th century, this appreciati­on of a distinctio­n between different kinds of solitude went hand in hand with the developmen­t of a new language of ‘ loneliness’, the dangers of which were thought to affect everyone, not just criminals. If this seems counter to our view of the Victorians, with their reputation for psychologi­cal repression, it’s worth noting that Victorians were actually fond of emotional displays.

We can see this in the aftermath of the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, in 1861 when the advent of industrial production meant that a wide consumer market had access to – and bought – memorials of grief such as factory-worked cups and figurines.

On a more personal level, the reaction of Queen Victoria tells us much about how attitudes towards loneliness were changing. When Albert died aged just 42, Victoria was devastated. Too devastated, her advisors warned. She needed to be more stoical, and to show her face in public. She could not hide away from her people and always dress as a widow. Yet she wore black until her death in 1901 and mourned Albert for 40 years. Despite gossip about her relationsh­ip with her attendant, John Brown, she never remarried.

In her diaries, Victoria catalogued her isolation in the wake of Albert’s death, lamenting that she was “forlorn… all alone & in misery” (February 1862). Every day, she found “the feeling of loneliness ever increasing” (12 May 1862). She delighted in the adoration of Albert by mourning subjects:

“The expression­s of universal admiration & appreciati­on of beloved Albert are most striking… Even the poor people in small villages, who don’t know me, are shedding tears for me, as if it were their own private sorrow.”

As this diary entry from 21 January 1862 shows, the presence of a community of mourners made Queen Victoria feel less alone. So, too, did the busts, photograph­s and tokens with which she filled her palaces. But the public’s grief was fleeting, whereas Victoria’s sense of loss turned to a chronic sense of abandonmen­t. In the face of Albert’s brother, Ernest, with his ageing stoutness and similarity in looks to Albert, the widow of Windsor found only “loneliness & the blessed past” (11 July 1868).

Victoria wrote of her bereavemen­t rather differentl­y to Thomas Turner, and that’s important. Yes, the two were poles apart in status and background, as well as gendered expectatio­ns and lifestyle. But Victoria’s own attitudes show not only how she and her

In cities, extended families were separated, the old left alone, and urban living brought alienation from others – and even the self

subjects were more sentimenta­l in dealing with grief than the Georgians, but also how there was a language of loneliness available for Victoria that had not existed in Turner’s time. Whereas Turner was raised to believe that God’s will lay behind his crushing loss, Victoria was born in a different philosophi­cal age. A focus on the individual that began in the 19th century, linked to industrial­isation, secular humanism and romanticis­m, put more emphasis on emotions linked to abandonmen­t – especially loneliness.

This language shift from oneliness to loneliness became more intense as the discipline­s of psychiatry and psychology emphasised the pathologie­s of solitude. The Swiss psychiatri­st and psychoanal­yst Carl Jung suggested that people were “intravert” or “extravert”, to use his original spelling. In the individual­istic, go-getting western world of the early 20th century, extraversi­on was more valued than introversi­on. Confidence and gregarious­ness were not only regarded as social lubricants but also associated with good mental health. Although it was not until the 1960s that loneliness was defined as a social problem, the practical and philosophi­cal bases of our 21st-century ‘epidemic of loneliness’ had taken hold.

Since industrial­isation had led to urbanisati­on, more people than ever were living in cities by the 20th century. Extended families were separated, the old left alone, and urban living brought alienation from others – and even the self. Lonely people living in cities recur in the works of the American realist painter Edward Hopper and the Bohemian writer Franz Kafka, both of whom depicted the individual set against a hostile and uncaring world. The modernist English writer Virginia Woolf wrote of her own loneliness in 1928 in her diary:

“I have entered into a sanctuary… of great agony once; and always some terror: so afraid one is of loneliness: of seeing to the bottom of the vessel… and got then to a consciousn­ess of what I call ‘reality’… something abstract, but residing in the downs or sky; beside which nothing matters.”

Reaching out

The American poet and diarist May Sarton similarly associated the value of loneliness and art, but reasserted an earlier hierarchy: “Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.” Even as the idea of loneliness, a 19th-century invention, has developed over the years, this remains a recurring distinctio­n, one that recognises how loneliness is an emotional lack that depletes us because it’s associated with an absence of meaningful connection­s. Solitude is a rich experience where connection­s predominat­e.

These might be spiritual or secular, they might involve friends, colleagues or lovers, but the historical continuity here is that meaningful connection­s mattered as much to Turner, Victoria and Woolf as they do to us. A lack of such connectedn­ess, by contrast, can be fatal, as evidenced by the journals of the American author Sylvia Plath, who killed herself at the age of just 30. Long before her poetry collection, Ariel, and novel, The Bell Jar, became widely acclaimed, Plath struggled for a sense of belonging that was constantly just out of reach:

“God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates… despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter – they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningles­s and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long.”

Plath admired Woolf. She had even tried to kill herself in the same way, by drowning, before she succeeded with a gas oven. Both women found a precarious sense of identity in being separate from the world, in creating art out of pain. Today, Plath is celebrated, part of the literary canon. During her life, however, she seems to have felt like a failure, not only as a writer, but also as a wife, a mother, a friend. This is a picture of loneliness linked to mental illness that’s acutely and powerfully familiar in a 21st century where connection­s so often seem at best fleeting.

Loneliness is a symptom of the modern world. The idea was coined at a time of transforma­tions in how ‘ belonging’ was expressed – from the rural to the urban, from face-to-face societies to anonymous ones, from traditiona­l working practices to factory-style employment. Loneliness entered the English language as a reflection of the concerns people had about the world and their place in it, concerns that are still with us.

That’s not to say loneliness doesn’t have deeper roots, which lie in fears of abandonmen­t and rejection. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” asked Jesus on the cross. “Why art thou so far from helping me and from the words of my roaring?” Even before the language of loneliness, then, there was an emotional need to belong, to connect, either with other mortals or with an omniscient god.


A Biography of Loneliness by Fay Bound Alberti will be published by Oxford University Press in spring 2019 RADIO The Anatomy of Loneliness is being broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in October and is available via iPlayer radio

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 ??  ?? The mourning of Queen Victoria, shown here with her third daughter, Princess Helena, lasted for four decades. The monarch’s loss was also acknowledg­ed by the manufactur­e and sale of such keepsakes as (left) memorial cards
The mourning of Queen Victoria, shown here with her third daughter, Princess Helena, lasted for four decades. The monarch’s loss was also acknowledg­ed by the manufactur­e and sale of such keepsakes as (left) memorial cards
 ??  ?? Edward Hopper’s Sunday (1926). The artist’s stark paintings of American life, especially his urban scenes, showed many of those he portrayed as solitary and alienated
Edward Hopper’s Sunday (1926). The artist’s stark paintings of American life, especially his urban scenes, showed many of those he portrayed as solitary and alienated

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