A History of Solitude calls for a “quiet history of British society”, or “a history of doing nothing at all”. It is a remarkably versatile study, ranging from the poetry of John Clare to the “networked solitude” of the internet and the cult of mindfulness. There is a fascinating section on solitary walking, which the 19th-century middle classes indulged in for spiritual recreation (Wordsworth is reckoned to have walked some 180,000 miles during his lifetime), and the labouring classes undertook in order to find work. Constant perambulation was what united peasant and patrician.
Just as not every Victorian convalescent could use the time to write a bestseller, not every quarantined household has Zoom-conferenced its way through the pandemic.
Vincent says that ‘being alone only becomes loneliness when the element of choice is constrained by necessity, and when there is no likelihood of escape in any foreseeable future’.
As coronavirus remains the main issue, it only heightens the divisions any government must tackle.
Nevertheless, the book bursts with fascinating information and chewy ideas. And I was heartened by the many examples of people who have made the best of enforced solitude, such as the Victorian invalid Harriet Martineau, author of Life in the Sick-Room. Her top tip for coping with being alone? Get a telescope to spy on the neighbours.
But the beauty of the inclusive approach is that it enables Vincent to marshal a huge amount of fascinating detail, from what the poet John Clare had on his bookshelf to Victorian injunctions on how to kneel for domestic prayer. It also reveals some striking plus ça change continuities. Those doughty Alpinists are part of a lineage stretching from Byron’s wandering Childe Harold to the lone round-the-world sailors of the 20th century. Likewise the gamer and the Instagrammer are heirs to the patience player and stamp collector of 150 years ago. Another continuity is the anxiety that all this innocuous activity has prompted.
Vincent’s book is a treasurable flip-side to the sound and fury that historians usually focus on, a quiet history of solitary activities: walking, fishing, gardening, needlework, embroidery, stamp-collecting, crossword-solving, dog-walking, jigsaw puzzles, DIY and reading. But the author is always sensitive to how recreational solitude risks becoming a form of conspicuous consumption for wealthy eccentrics. Not all of us can afford to circumnavigate the globe single-handed or have an instagrammable Hornby train set in the attic.