The history of lone­li­ness

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - 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

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

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