A History of Solitude

David Vincent

Polity Books, £25

Review by Iain Macwhirter

IT’S a sobering thought that most of us have been living under terms of effective house arrest for the best part of two months. Unable to meet friends, travel or work we are living under circumstances that resemble forms of incarceration used in authoritarian countries to suppress political opposition.

This has, of course, been voluntary incarceration undertaken willingly to minimise the risk of infection from Covid-19. But while we occupy ourselves watching Netflix and baking we should be alive to the risks of this half-life. For many people, especially the elderly, lockdown itself carries a health warning.

As David Vincent, Professor Emeritus of History at the Open University who has written widely on popular culture and literacy recounts in this exhaustively researched history of solitude, the “epidemic of loneliness” had already been regarded as one of the scourges of the modern age before a certain virus placed us all in the isolation tank.

It’s no accident solitary confinement is traditionally the sternest punishment in gaol. Imprisonment began in the early 19th century as an enlightened and humane alternative to the death penalty, transportation and corporal punishment, but the effects of isolation were soon found to be almost as bad.

Vincent recounts how early inmates at Britain’s first modern penitentiary, Pentonville, soon suffered serious mental problems and alarming rise in suicide. Charles Dickens wrote about the dire effects of enforced isolation: “He is a man buried alive...dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair”.

But isolation is not solitude, which as Vincent rightly points out, is often a positive state of being, almost a spiritual practice, which people have sought since the dawn of urban civilisation.

Vincent explores the vast literature on being alone, from Petrarch’s The Life of Solitude to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Having one was something to which only the relatively wealthy, or those in religious orders, could aspire. Ordinary people sought “abstracted solitude” in activities which allowed them to cut off while being amongst people. Vincent explores the rise of games like patience in the mid 19th century and crosswords, which became a recreation for increasing numbers of workers, like clerks, who spent their day in mindful tasks.

This is not to be confused with mindfulness, a modern form of therapeutic solitude that emerged in the second half of the 20th century.

This period also saw the rise of “loneliness”, a pathological solitude, which is often cited as the dark side of our individualistic consumer society. Vincent is sceptical about loneliness being an actual “epidemic”. Old people have always experienced it. It’s just that there are nearly five times as many people now living over the age of 65 than at the end of the 19th century. On the whole, Vincent seems to be fairly positive about the impact of new technologies like the Walkman and iPhone, which he argues gave ordinary people the means to be alone while still in company. “They drove the conscious experience of solitude from a privilege of the educated male to the practice of all but the poorest or least interested”.

However, he’s not so sure about search engines and social media which he thinks “impoverish the realm of withdrawal” and could “abolish the very concept of solitude”. This is not a book with an overarching philosophy, or a particular social message, still less a psychological theory. It is really just fascinating history of what he calls the “multitude of quiet recreations” which we take for granted.

Everything from dog-walking to digging the garden, Wordsworth to word games. Angling, stamp collecting, even smoking, are explored in detail as ways of getting away from it all. “At one level,” Vincent concludes, “this has been a history of doing nothing at all.”