David Vincent is professor emeritus and former pro-vice-chancellor at The Open University and author of the new book A History of Solitude.
The first modern account of self-isolation was written from a woman’s bedroom in early-Victorian Britain. Harriet Martineau was a leading public intellectual, specializing in the emerging subject of political economy. In 1839, she fell ill with what she wrongly believed would be an ultimately fatal ovarian disorder.
Her response was to remove herself from society and set up home in a small rented house in Tynemouth, on the north-east coast. After five years reflecting on her condition, she published Life in the Sick-room: Essays by an Invalid.
The book immediately gained a wide readership. It rejected the prevailing orthodoxy, that the onset of terminal illness should lead to spiritual reflection under the guidance of a man of God. Instead, Martineau argued that – for women in particular – it should be a moment of asserting control over their lives.
Unwanted company offering nothing but vacuous optimism or religious bromides should be banished. Instead patients should manage their own space, enjoying the opportunity to pursue the endeavours that were so often frustrated by the pressures of daily living.
Martineau’s notion of isolation was, to some extent, of its time. In common with her class, it was possible to feel entirely alone while live-in domestic staff moved around the house, cleaning and providing meals. At a certain level, servants did not count as people. Nurses and doctors, still struggling to attain professional authority, were treated as employees rather than managing figures.
In other respects, however, Martineau spoke to our present experience. In the first case, her theatre of illness was domestic. Hospitals were little more than a threat to health. Wherever possible, those who fell ill suffered and died at home, raising all the contemporary questions of how the invalid could be separated from the continuing life of the family. As with another famous 19th-century invalid, Florence Nightingale, it was Martineau’s gain at her time of crisis to be a spinster, able to withdraw altogether from domestic responsibilities.
Crucially, Martineau’s physical isolation was made feasible by communications technology. The book trade was already well-enough established to act as a forerunner of Amazon. Everything that she wanted to continue her writing career, or entertain herself, was delivered to her door in Tynemouth.
Her period of retreat coincided with the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840, which was, as she wrote, “unspeakably important.” A cumbersome system of charging by distance on delivery (no small matter 300 miles from London), was replaced by a cheap, flat-rate postage paid by the sender. Martineau was able to enjoy networked isolation, physically alone but in constant touch with publishers, fellow intellectuals and friends and family.
Further, Martineau had access to forms of domestic recreation that were becoming increasingly popular. She grew flowers, made clothes for nephews and nieces, practised needlework. And she read books and newspapers every day.
A combination of rising disposable income, increasing domestic comfort and a vibrant consumer market was generating an ever-widening range of activities that could be undertaken to compensate for the absence of company. Gardening, keeping pets, puzzles and solitary card games, cooking, collecting stamps, and handicrafts for the purpose of decorating the home were all supported by guides to practice, organizations of practitioners and the shops or mail-order firms selling the necessary materials.
Over time, these opportunities have expanded. The space and comfort available to middle-class families descended the social scale in the 20th century as family size declined and new housing was built. After 1945, self-isolation became an increasing way of life. Where in Martineau’s time it was rare to live wholly alone, the proportion of single-person households rose to the present figure – in Britain, where I live, approximately 7.7 million people live alone, according to the Office for National Statistics.
For the most part, the change reflected an increased capacity to choose how to live. The elderly preferred not to move in with children, those in unsatisfactory relationships seized the opportunity to spend time in their own company. Information technology built upon the structures of written communication, providing ever-more information and entertainment to personal devices.
Contemporary society thus enters the coronavirus crisis with a rich inheritance of expectations and resources for self-isolation. Solitude is now a practised and practicable condition. The difficulty arises when choice cannot be exercised and the experience tips over into loneliness.
It is partly a matter of resources. Change since the 19th century has been driven by private and public prosperity. Recent underinvestment in health and social services, and poverty driven by loss of income, will deeply influence the experience of isolation.
And it is a matter of consent. Much will now depend on whether citizens agree to disrupt their patterns of living for the sake of their own and the common good. Trust and communication police the boundary of acceptable and unacceptable isolation.
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