At what can be one of the loneliest times of year, a historian of emotion picks the best books about a modern malady
Fay Bound Alberti – The Guardian
Loneliness comes to life … Steven McRae as the Creature in the Royal Ballet’s adaptation of Frankenstein. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
Loneliness is everywhere. Or so it seems. It’s been described in medical terms, as an epidemic, plague and infection. It has its own minister in the UK, Baroness Barran, with indications that other countries – Switzerland, Germany, maybe even the US – may follow suit.
The problem is that loneliness is seldom defined. It’s often presented as an individual, even universal, mental affliction. But loneliness is relatively new. The word comes into common usage around 1800, linked to social change – especially the secularity, alienation and competition produced by modernity. Before then it was solitude that interested writers and philosophers. Solitude could be problematic, but in a landscape forged by God, was one ever alone?
Loneliness is different at different times. Yes, it can be desperate and crushing and agonising. But it can also be temporary, transitory, a “pinch-point” or life stage. Loneliness is not a single emotion but a mix of different feelings, including anger, resentment and fear as well as sorrow, grief and shame. It can even be pleasurable.
As a historian of emotion, these complexities, and the absence of any existing extended historical inquiry, inspired my new book, A Biography of Loneliness. With case studies that include Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Queen Victoria and Thomas Turner, it explores the emergence of loneliness as a modern, physical and psychological affliction. And it considers the role played by political, social and economic factors (including the fact that the loneliest of all – homeless people and refugees – are not covered by the paper-thin umbrella of government concern).
I chose these 10 books for what they have to say individually, as well as what they represent collectively, about the historically changing meanings of loneliness. Many are written by women, because the connections between loneliness, creativity and gender are a neglected but critical aspect of modern and contemporary writing.
- Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)
Drenched in the contemporaneous racism of crusaders and cannibals, Robinson Crusoe is often read as a study in religious redemption and a search for the self. Unlike Tom Hanks’s character in the Crusoe-inspired film Castaway (2000), Crusoe is not lonely. The word is never mentioned and he may rail at God, but the universe he inhabits has certainty and meaning.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
This well-known tale (by a writer still, depressingly often, dismissed as “Shelley’s wife”) is one of the first fictive attempts to identify loneliness and social disconnect. Written when science was being “mastered”, and drawing on concerns about social alienation and the exploitation of nature, Frankenstein was also written when the word loneliness was just emerging. It contains just two references to loneliness (and one of those is a lonely road, reflecting its unemotional origin as a synonym for solitude). Yet the angst of Frankenstein’s monster, guilty of sin, abandoned and lost, expresses a remarkably familiar, modern version of loneliness.
- The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928)
One of the earliest, best-known accounts of lesbian experience in British and American culture, this novel raises important questions about gender, sexuality, and “belonging” broadly defined. Though its language of “sexual inversion” and “inverts” is archaic, the novel brought attention to the core themes of loneliness and alienation that resulted from early 20th-century anti-gay rhetoric. A recurring theme of LGBTQ+ discussions in the 21st century has been loneliness, especially when linked to mental illness and minority stress.
- A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf (1953)
By the 1940s, when “loneliness” was in widespread use to mean emotional isolation, Woolf wrote of its uses. For how else, other than through loneliness, could she disconnect from the world? Published posthumously by her husband Leonard, the book comprises extracts from the diaries she kept from 1918 until 1941, the year she died by suicide. It is filled with fascinating detail on her writing life and the Bloomsbury set of which she was part, as well as critical reflections on loneliness in a gendered world.
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (first published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas)
Plath’s novel explores a loneliness that again stemmed from social expectation – this time, what it was to be a woman in the 1950s, juggling the expectations of work, domesticity and desire. The agonising loneliness and mental illness described by its narrator Esther Greenwood connect to Plath’s own life, as described in her journals and letters. Plath killed herself just one month after its publication.
- Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton (1973)
An American poet and writer, Sarton wrote this book in order to record her experiences of depression and loneliness. The Journal was widely regarded as a landmark in women’s autobiography. Like Woolf, Sarton wrote about loneliness as necessary for creativity. But her writing also echoes Romantic ideas about the creator being in nature, and the need for physical connectedness to the world in order to belong.
- Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John T Cacioppo and William Patrick (2009)
In the early 21st century, loneliness began to be a medical as well as a social concern. In light of an ageing population, with health risks attached to loneliness, post-industrial societies needed to look at causes. Together with his wife Stephanie, the late John Cacioppo (et al) undertook path-breaking work in the neuroscience of loneliness. This book was one of the first to describe loneliness as a form of contagion; it gives a neuroscientific explanation for the physical damage caused by social isolation, from hearts and neurons to the immune system.
- The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (2016)
Laing explores the paradox of loneliness in the city – multitudes of others alongside an “omnipresent, unanswerable feeling that I was in a state of lack”. She also considers the sense of blame attached (which reminds me of the dismissal of lonely people in the UK as “Billy no-mates”, as though they are lonely for a reason). Loneliness can bring creativity, too, Laing reminds us, via a (strikingly male) lineup of artists that includes Edward Hopper, Edward Darger and Andy Warhol.
- Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017)
The winner of the 2017 Costa first novel award, this book focuses on the eponymous social misfit, who is isolated and lonely. An abusive childhood, facial scarring and her social awkwardness contribute to her sense of being misunderstood. When asked how she is, she always replies: “Absolutely fine.” It is only when she befriends Raymond, or is befriended by him, that she begins to understand how to have a friend, and to belong.
- Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari (2018)
Hari’s book is a reminder of how devastating loneliness can be, despite all its creative possibilities. This is an important study of depression as a social problem, against a backdrop of medical reductionism: depression as a problem of mind (or rather, brain). It is unmet need that Hari sees at the centre of rising levels of depression and anxiety. We are back to Cacioppo’s need for social connections – with Hari’s conclusion that their loss, as the book’s subtitle suggests, is the real cause of depression.
- A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion by Fay Bound Alberti is published by Oxford University Press. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on orders over £15.