Solitude has shaped society for centuries but the virus changed it for us all

Isolation used to be a privilege for the rich. Now that it's a reality we have all experienced, it could tell us a lot about our society, says David Vincent

There will be those living on the streets who find the present crisis grimly familiar. Living alone is for them scarcely a novelty. Withdrawal from society has a long history, which informs how we will cope with the coronavirus epidemic.

Solitude was once seen as a privilege reserved for educated men. In the words of the first major work on solitude by Johann Zimmermann, it was a necessary moment for ‘self-collection and freedom’ in the midst of an increasingly busy urbanising society. Women were held to be too emotionally frail to cope with such isolation, and working people would not have any spare time to spend by themselves. The monastic tradition of solitary prayer within a disciplined institution, which stretched back to the desert fathers of the fourth century, had been destroyed in England by Thomas Cromwell and the Reformation.

Around the turn of the 19th century, a reaction set in, driven by the Romantic Movement. Escaping the press of people, striding out across empty countryside, became a means of enhancing the imagination in the face of the mechanising forces unleashed by the industrial revolution.

During the Victorian period, a combination of growing domestic prosperity, a burgeoning consumer market and vibrant mass communication networks, made it easier for middle-class men and women to find time and space to enjoy their own company. Pastimes such as reading, gardening, stamp-collecting, needlework, handicrafts, card solitaire and angling rapidly expanded. It became possible to practise physical solitude, where the practitioner was apart from company, or networked solitude where he or she was alone but in contact with distant friends or relations, or abstracted solitude, where the individual removed their thoughts and attention from surrounding company.

We should realise that we are much better equipped for living by ourselves than we were in the 1918 flu epidemic

In the following century, working-class households began to enjoy similar opportunities. Falling family sizes combined with the construction of council house estates with two or three bedrooms and enclosed gardens meant that housewives had more time to themselves, adolescent children had rooms of their own and husbands could pursue private interests around the home. Solitude was seen as a necessary and valued adjunct to social life rather than a threat to its existence. After 1945, two contrasting developments took place.

In the first place, society more broadly began to self-isolate. Due to old age pensions, other welfare reforms (and a wider cultural shift in thinking), more people of all ages were able to choose to live alone. By and large the satisfaction of independence, combined with improving communication networks, made living alone as satisfactory an experience as health and age permitted.

At the same time social commentators began to be concerned about the incidence of loneliness, which may be seen as failed solitude. It is a condition, as Stephanie Dowrick wrote, of being “uncomfortably alone without someone”. The key issue is that of freedom to move between company and its absence. Those forced to live by themselves, or prevented by their health or income from connecting with others, face increasingly severe mental or physical suffering. Although it is misleading to describe it as an ‘epidemic’ (particularly now that we have been reminded of what a real infectious disease looks like) it is undoubtedly a problem for a proportion of those living alone, or unable to associate with others in their accommodation.

History endows the coronavirus lockdown with alternative prospects. On the one hand we should realise that we are much better equipped for living by ourselves than we were in previous crises such as the 1918 flu epidemic. Home entertainments, online shopping, digital networks and solitary pastimes together make solitude a practised and practicable condition.

On the other hand, the positive experience of being alone has over the last two centuries been driven by private and institutional prosperity. There were signs that the 2010 austerity programme was increasing the numbers exposed to loneliness, in their own homes or on the streets.

Whether it will be possible for the government to rectify in a few weeks the consequences of a 10-year programme of disinvestment in hospitals, social services, public libraries and other local facilities remains to be seen. We cannot be certain that a revived community spirit combined with new forms of government financial support will put a new floor under deprivation, or whether the vast dislocation of the economy and restrictions on social interaction will make the incidence of loneliness more extensive and still harder to bear.

A History of Solitude by David Vincent is published on April 24 (Polity, £25)