Solitude vs Self-Isolation: Women Authors and the Sacred Inner Space
By Sultana Raza | On | Comments (5)
Most artists and writers keep their inner space sacred and inviolate. It’s the core from where their creativity springs. Some keep their inner world more private than others.
While plenty of male writers have suffered from (or have preferred) isolation, this musing will focus on well known female writers. Confinement periods can be an advantage for women writers, as their extra-curricular activities may slow down.
Seeking solitude doesn’t make a writer antisocial. Perhaps periods of quarantines made it easier for writers to carve out specific periods of time where they can work in blissful solitude. A brief look at women authors of the past shows that self-imposed sequestration isn’t such a crazy thing to do, after all.
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Though Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) had a portable desk on which she would scratch away with her quill, it was hidden from most visitors to her home. Even if Jane had shared her juvenile writings with her family, when it came to novels, the act of creating them was a private affair. Except for her sister Cassandra, most of her family were unaware of the contents of her novels while she was penning them in a secluded corner of her childhood home at Steventon.
After losing the love of her life, and having subsequently rejected a potential husband because she didn’t care for him (like her most famous character, Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice) Jane must have experienced not just emotional loneliness, but possibly an intellectual one as well.
Though her family was quite well-educated, perhaps she lacked the stimulus that mingling with other writers, in London, for example, might have sparked her bright mind. Except for the fact that there were few women writers in those days, anyway.
There weren’t any other brains around as sharp as hers with whom she could have shared her keen observations on society, even if she’d wanted to. Her main confidante was her sister Cassandra, (who burnt most of Jane’s letters after the latter’s death). Reduced to genteel poverty after her father retired, Jane couldn’t write in Bath in houses that kept getting increasingly smaller, and dingy, as they had to move around a lot.
Both Jane and Cassandra had to cope with all attendant problems that come from descending the economic ladder, whilst trying to keep up appearances of social gentility. How many novels were lost in the years when Jane couldn’t find that safe secure unmoving shell where she could retreat and produce her warm characters whose brilliant wit continues to delight readers even today?
Though her desk was portable, (gifted to her by her father), perhaps she needed that still, silent point where she could find her center, and from where she could start exploring the minutiae and intricate web of her characters, and the complex social rules that they had to follow.
Her pen started flying again when her oldest brother Edward finally bestowed a cottage at Chawton to his mother and unmarried sisters, and where they could settle down without having fears of moving yet again due to financial constraints. There’s a story (which may be a myth) that Jane wouldn’t let the hinges of the door to her room be greased; whenever anyone entered it, the sound alerted her to that fact, and she could quickly hide her manuscript from prying eyes. Whether this is true or not, it’s a good metaphor for the woman writer’s desire for privacy.
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The Brontë sisters
The Brontë sisters toiled away at their oeuvres in relative secrecy in Haworth, in the West Riding area of Yorkshire in England. Though their cooperative ventures in childhood produced the Empire of Angria, and Gondal along with minute maps, sketches, and schemes, they grew increasingly apart even in the cramped quarters of the Parish house at Haworth.
Charlotte, the eldest Brontë, was the first to propose venturing into the world of publishing, but her younger sister Emily at first resisted. Emily, the middle and most reclusive of the three sisters (the youngest was Anne) has remained the most mysterious one as well. Ironically, she sought seclusion in the open moors near Haworth where she found solace far away from the confines of the tightly-knit, family web with its tangled and complicated emotional life. Her dog, Keeper, was perhaps her closest companion.
In modern times, perhaps the Brontë sisters might be called word nerds and social misfits. Aware of the fact that they were different from the ordinary folks surrounding them, possibly they suffered from emotional and increasingly intellectual loneliness as they grew more competitive with age.
In Charlotte Brontë’s most well-known novel, Jane Eyre, the madwoman in the attic, Bertha Mason could personify one part of the author’s own psyche which could have become increasingly complex after her unrequited love for Professor Héger in Brussels (where she taught at his school) ended with bitterness on her part.
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In her 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys (1890 – 1979) speculates as to who this mad woman, Bertha Mason, might have been. As it turns out, Antionette Cosway, a Creole heiress from West Indies (another misfit due to being mixed) was gradually driven into insanity by the excesses of her British husband — the young Mr. Rochester — due to his negligence, cruelty, displacement, and racism towards her.
Bertha wasn’t just socially isolated, but physically, emotionally, and spiritually as well. Was Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre Charlotte’s shadow double (as a Jungian analyst would have surmised)?
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Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was an extreme case, the epitome of the solitary brilliant poet, as she spent nearly the last two decades of her short life as a recluse in her own home. Only around eleven of her poems (out of about 1,800) were published in her lifetime. Even if women authors weren’t exactly encouraged in those days, she deliberately kept hundreds of poems hidden even from her own family until these gems were discovered after her death.
It’s impossible to know why Emily Dickinson kept her work so secret, though usually, artists tend to be much more sensitive than the ordinary (wo)man on the street, and therefore, any kind of criticism can be taken too much to heart. Perhaps her writings didn’t fall on ears that were appreciative enough. Or perhaps writing these poems was an intensely personal experience, which couldn’t be shared by others.
Emily might be called a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) now, and perhaps her life and work should be examined by this lens. Perhaps all the authors mentioned here were HSPs to varying degrees.
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Dickinson was already living Virginia Woolf’s famous lines illustrating the concept that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Apart from the feminist slant given to Woolf’s well-known statement, perhaps a woman didn’t need just independence, but also a degree of privacy in which to create.
Despite belonging to the Bloomsbury Group, and living a relatively social life, some of Woolf’s inner aloneness may have bled onto the page, and found an echo in Clarissa Dalloway’s inner despondent landscape.
Woolf (1882 – 1941), best known for taking the stream of conscious style of writing to exquisite heights, held onto the idea of keeping a part of her inner core inviolate, as a writer can’t possibly share all her thoughts with the public, or even with those who are close to her. Though she suffered from mental illness, partly due to her mother’s premature death, partly due to the abuse she endured at the hands of her stepbrother), and/or chemical imbalances, her bipolar disorder may have been augmented by her overly sensitive nature.
One sign of her insanity was that she believed that birds were speaking to her in ancient Greek. If only she’d been able to note down whatever it was that they’d said. Existential issues (inherent to the human condition) could have started looming like huge grey clouds. Her increasing emotional and spiritual loneliness could have pushed her to commit suicide.
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Unlike the other writers mentioned here, Colette (1873 – 1954) who had an outgoing, exuberant personality, delighted in swirling through the artistic and intellectual circles of Paris, when her much older husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (Willy) brought her there in 1893.
The couple lived together from 1893 to 1906. Colette was literally locked into a room by Willy to compel her to produce writings that he could sell (these turned out to be the Claudine stories). If anything, this proves that writing tends to be a solitary exercise, even under duress — unless one is part of a purposeful duo or team.
For many years, Willy passed the Claudine novels off as his own writings. In the end, he took credit and royalties for these books that Colette had written originally. However, after she left him, due to her straitened circumstances, Colette must have finally learned to resist the temptation of the stage and bright lights and sit down to write, as she produced numerous major works, with Cheri and The Last of Cheri being among the best known.
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Was Agatha Christie’s (1890 – 1976) need for privacy so great that in December of 1926, she disappeared for about ten days? This lead to a nationwide hunt, and furor in the press. Perhaps Christie wasn’t expecting that. But she didn’t step forward. Instead, she was discovered at a hotel in Harrogate. Perhaps she was growing so lonely in her marriage due to her husband’s affair that she preferred to run away.
It’s not clear whether it was to punish him, take some personal time off, or if she’d staged her own disappearance to humiliate her spouse, or for publicity, or if she’d genuinely lost her memory. In any case, sequestration was preferable for her at that period of her life.
She then took refuge in her sister’s house, and early next year went to the Canary Isles to recuperate. She’d find fodder for her books during her travels in subsequent years. She would remain unattached until 1930, when she met her second husband.
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Daphne du Maurier
Known for being reclusive and even frosty, Daphne du Maurier (1907 – 1989), was supposedly quite cold towards her two daughters, but warmer towards her son. Perhaps her complicated relationships, which may have led to a double life, and accusations of plagiarism may not have been conducive to being gregarious.
Given the balancing act that her emotional and professional lives may have been, du Maurier must have preferred that some equations of her life remain unsolved, like the character of Rachel in My Cousin Rachel.
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Though P.L. Travers (1899-1966) maintained she didn’t know how Mary Poppins had popped onto her pages, at least she knew where these stories had evolved. In 1934, since she was suffering from pleurisy, she retreated to a cottage in Sussex to recover. Since she started making up a story to entertain two visiting children during this period of semi-confinement, she ended up with the first book of Mary Poppins.
For most of her life, Travers kept her personal life under wraps, as in her youth, many of her acquaintances in London didn’t even know she was Australian. At age forty she adopted a son, Camillus Hone, but that relationship didn’t go well. Was her solitude alleviated somewhat because of this relationship? While only Travers might answer to that question, she drew a lot of flak for her adopted son’s subsequent problems with alcoholism.
The TV documentary, The Secret Life of Mary Poppins: A Culture Show Special touches upon her turbulent relationship with Camillus. On the one hand, she’s been justifiably criticized for not telling him that he had a twin brother, only finding out when his twin tracked him down.
On the other hand, the Hone family has not been held responsible for allowing her to adopt just one twin, and for leaving Camillus in her supposedly incompetent hands, despite his many problems. Just because she wrote about a magical nanny, Mary Poppins, does that mean she should’ve had those excellent child-rearing skills herself?
Writing can be exhausting and draining for some writers, as it can be an emotionally demanding, and soul-searching activity. It leaves little room for “normal” family life. While most male writers can conveniently leave the rearing of their off-springs to their spouses, or other female relatives, women writers are held more accountable for how they bring up their children. This is not an easy job in the best of circumstances.
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Conclusion: The solitary female writer
The solitary female has traditionally been stigmatized as being either problematic or undesirable. Perhaps that’s the reason female writers struggle with loneliness more. However, the quarantine may have liberated some from the need to socialize to fit better into society.
Since writers are a part of society, they have to keep a foot in it. However, if they’re going to depict humanity and associated social structures in all their myriad forms in their work, authors have to be somewhat removed from them. Not just to be able to observe society, but also to comment on it via their creative endeavors.
So, is the unconscious act of self-isolation a necessary part of the creative process? Not to mention that not many “normal” people have trouble understanding writers and artists, and where they’re coming from in the first place. These kinds of solitary activities may even arouse some sort of suspicion in their entourage.
On one hand, the act of writing is necessarily a solitary one. On the other, if the artist is to portray, or critique, or comment on society through their work, they must observe social phenomena to recreate a version of it in their texts. Some of us prefer to live in seclusion or tend to lead semi-sequestered lives under normal circumstances.
According to Barbara Sher (1935 – 2020), author of Refuse to Choose, “Isolation is the dream killer, not your attitude.” So it’s a question of creating a balancing act as away to succeed as a writer. Though many extrovert writers do well in their lifetimes — being good at networking, and building their images — it’s the quality of the work that ensures a long shelf life.
The quarantines of the year 2020 proved to be a blessing in disguise for many artists and writers, as it offered quiet time to create, write, edit, or submit their works for publication. Yet, it was difficult to keep one’s sanity through the many uncertainties that arose during this worrisome time. At the same time, every major change in the social, economic, and political climate can provide fuel for the writer’s imagination, which constantly needs to be ignited.
This piece originally ran on Literary Yard
Contributed by Sultana Raza: Of Indian origin, Sultana Raza’s creative non-fiction has appeared in countercurrents.org, Litro, Gnarled Oak, Kashmir Times, and A Beautiful Space. Her 100+ articles (on art, theatre, film, and humanitarian issues) have appeared in English and French. An independent scholar, Sultana Raza has presented many papers related to Romanticism (Keats) and Fantasy (Tolkien & GRR Martin) in international conferences.
Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Columbia Journal, The New Verse News, London Grip, Classical Poetry Society, spillwords, Poetry24, Dissident Voice, and The Peacock Journal. Her fiction has received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train Review (USA), and has been published in Coldnoon Journal, Szirine, apertura, Entropy, and ensemble (in French). She has read her fiction/poems in India, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, England, Ireland, the U.S.