A Pelican in the Wilderness: Hermits, Solitaries and Recluses
284pp, HarperCollins, £16.99
“Le grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul”: the great sickness, said La Bruyère, is the inability to be alone. Solitude was once counted a virtue. These days, recluses are regarded with suspicion. “Loner” is a word reserved for paedophiles and serial killers. Only a special few are allowed to retreat from society: those, like monks and nuns, wearing the proper uniform. The rest of us are expected to surround ourselves with company; only then can we keep the infinite spaces at bay. Even the solitary stroll, traditionally a cure for most things (solvitur ambulando: it is solved by walking), has been abolished, thanks to the personal stereo and mobile phone.
Yet hermits have been around since the first cave. In every culture they can be found heading into the wilderness and living off roots and berries. The novelist Isabel Colegate, author of The Shooting Party, offers a short, idiosyncratic history of the human quest for solitude. She takes her title from Thomas Traherne: “A man that Studies Happiness must sit alone like a Sparrow upon the House Top, and like a Pelican in the Wilderness.”
Colegate’s interest in the subject stems from a 15-acre wood she used to trespass in and now owns. The wood was planted 200 years ago and originally included a hermit’s cell, that great fashion accessory of the Augustan age. Intrigued, she began to excavate the site, and gradually restored the hermitage to its pristinely ruined state. Had she been living in the 18th century, she’d have gone further and installed a hermit. Many a landowner did so: Charles Hamilton, for instance, advertised for a hermit who’d stick around for seven years, in return for which he’d provide food, water, a Bible and, at the end, 700 guineas. The successful applicant lasted only three weeks before being spotted sneaking off to the local pub.
This is the sillier end of the recluse business. Colegate is more interested in the solid majority of hermits, with their spiritual yearning, straggly beards and love of nature. Her subjects range from Thoreau, who claimed to have built his hut by Walden Pond for $28.12, to Krishnamurti and Swami Abhishiktananda. Her travels take her from Dumfriesshire, where there is a thriving Buddhist retreat, to the Syrian desert, home of St Simeon, the most famous of the stylites. Stylites are hermits who dwell on the tops of pillars, and aren’t to be confused with dendrites, who live in trees. Among the latter was Mrs Pobjoy, Beau Nash’s last mistress, who after his death in 1761 moved into a hollow trunk and stayed there.
Hermits come and go, like everyone else. They were common in the middle ages, and again in the early 19th century, when the myth of the noble savage gave them a new lease of life. After the first world war, many of Britain’s hermits were trench survivors suffering from shell shock; the late Richard Cobb reported that there were five living in the Tunbridge Wells of his childhood. The backwoods of the US filled up with hippies and outlaws after Vietnam. Mount Athos, in Macedonia, was a similar magnet after the collapse of communism. In the 1960s, the average age of monks there was 80; in 1991, it was 34.
It seems that hermits are far less solitary than legend suggests. St Anthony, prototype for Christian hermits, had hundreds of followers living near him in huts and cells, and crowds would flock to hear him. Hermits may withdraw from the world, but they’re also expected to give something back – whether herbal cures, honey from their hives or sermons on how to live. Nor are hermits always male: among the women Colegate talks to is Sister Maximilian, who rides a motorbike and supports herself by heraldic painting. She also cites cases of nuns living in celibate union with monks. There’s a word for this – syneisaktism – just as there is for the neurosis many recluses suffer from: scopophobia, the fear of being looked at.
Neurosis is a risk for those who live in isolation. Sensible hermits keep themselves busy communing with God and cultivating their gardens, but as well as the ecstatic self-transcendence achieved through meditation, there’s also the prison of solipsism. “Woe to him that is alone when he falleth,” says the Bible, “for he hath not another to help him up.” Colegate cites the cases of three poets – Cowper, Clare and Gurney – whose solitude led to the madhouse. Other hermits have simply been frauds.
Her book isn’t short on literary examples, and she cites the case of JD Salinger, who turned his back on the world at the peak of worldly success. I’m surprised she doesn’t also mention Philip Larkin, who was sometimes called the Hermit of Hull and whose poem “Vers de Société” brilliantly captures the modern notion that
All solitude is selfish. No one now
Believes the hermit with his gown and dish
Talking to God (who’s gone too); the big wish
Is to have people nice to you, which means
Doing it back somehow.
The best passages are those where Colegate describes places she has visited and people she has met. Elsewhere, she seems shy of self-exposure (this is her first work of non-fiction), and in her enthusiasm for the subject bombards us with bitty character sketches and historical anecdotes. The book is full of fascinating detail, but a sharper focus would have made it less fragmentary.
Today the city hermit has things easier than his country cousin. The weirdo in the woods will be removed by social services, whereas the crusty in cardboard city is tossed the odd coin and left alone. You don’t get to live alongside deer and finches, but there’s nowhere more isolated than a city street.