by Barbara Taylor (Queen Mary, University of London)
What is solitude? The question tends to stop people in their tracks. The commonsense definition – an absence of other people – clearly won’t do, first because one can be wrong about this, that is be in the presence of others when one thinks one isn’t, but also because being with others is for many people the most solitary condition of all. Isolation, seclusion, privacy: none of these are solitude, although some may be preconditions for it. Sometimes aloneness is lonely – for some people unbearably lonely: ‘Solitude,’ the poet John Donne wrote after a period of confinement with illness, ‘is a torment which is not threatened in hell it selfe’. For other people – especially but not exclusively religious solitaries – solitude is a privileged site of intimate connection, an always-accompanied condition. ‘Never less alone than when alone’; ‘[nothing] so companionable as solitude’; ‘Alone in a crowd’; ‘solitude is best society’…The famous epigrams say it all; the language of solitude is crammed with such paradoxes.
Solitude is a human eternal that is nonetheless historical, its meanings and valuations varying over time. Its history is one of controversy: from antiquity on people have argued about the relative merits of solitude versus sociability, the active life as opposed to the contemplative life, retirement versus public duty. Solitude has been widely perceived as egoistical, slothful, and psychologically debilitating. ‘Be not solitary, be not idle’ the Oxford don Robert Burton counselled in his compendious 1621 The Anatomy of Melancholy, for those that are solitary risk ‘feare, sorrow, suspition…discontent, cares, and wearinesse of life’ [sic]. And still today a marked preference for solitude tends to be perceived as eccentric and/or neurotic.
Exploring this long, complex history is challenging, not least because the historiography is thin. This is now changing, but when I first began my research (on Mary Wollstonecraft and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, two solitude-lovers) relevant studies were hard to come by. My familiarity with 18th Century ideas about selfhood and subjectivity made my work slightly easier, but the 17th Century was entirely new terrain. Sometimes a book makes all the difference. Frances Harris’s prizewinning Transformations of Love: the Friendship of John Evelyn and Margaret Godolphin (2002) is not a study of spiritual solitude but it is rich in sources for such a study. I was fortunate enough to get to know Frances, who sadly died in 2021. For over a year I learned from her, shared my ideas with her, and was taught by her how to read John and Margaret’s copious correspondence. My article “Solitude and Soul in Restoration Britain” in Past & Present No. 262 is dedicated to her.
The ‘soul union’ between John and Margaret was rooted in a mutual passion for a numinous solitude that both expressed and disguised a deep emotional entanglement that, in John’s case, clearly had an erotic component. It was both an enriching and parlous connection, lived out in the steamy, seedy atmosphere of the Restoration court. This was a period when secular and spiritual solitude were, in related ways, flashpoints of contention. A deeply intellectual man, steeped in the classical tradition, John publicly intervened in debates over the merits and demerits of the solitary life. By contrast, Margaret’s reflections on solitude were private, shared only with John himself.
Women’s relationship to solitude has always differed from men’s. In Margaret’s day they were perceived as exceptionally vulnerable to solitude’s perils, including diabolic seduction, while lacking the mental and moral resources to take advantage of the vita solitaria. In fact her commitment to solitude was well-informed and thoughtful. Nonetheless, her six-year relationship with John provides a valuable case-study of the complex relationship between gender difference and solitude.
While ‘seraphic friendships’, as these relationships were also known, were not unusual in the Restoration elite, John and Margaret’s passionate fraught liaison provides a unique window into the early modern history of solitariness. I welcome comments on my treatment of this and the historiography of solitude more generally.