The invention of loneliness

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

'The Poor Actress's Christmas Dinner', a painting by pre-Raphaelite artist Robert Braithwaite Martineau, says much about the way Victorians had begun to understand the problem of loneliness. (Photo by Bridgeman Art Library)

This article was first published in the November 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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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.”

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

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 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.

Dr Fay Bound Alberti is a cultural historian and an honorary senior research fellow at Queen Mary University of London. A Biography of Loneliness by Fay Bound Alberti will be published by Oxford University Press in spring 2019

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Radio: The Anatomy of Loneliness is being broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in October and is available via iPlayer radio