School of History

ESH6028 - Solitude in Life and Letters in Enlightenment Britain

An interdisciplinary look at the concepts of solitude in Enlightenment Britain.

Module code: ESH6028

Credits: 15

Solitude is an eternal dimension of human experience, but how it is conceived and represented changes over time.

In Enlightenment Britain solitude was controversial. Widespread concern about the psychological and moral impact of capitalism prompted fears about the unregulated passions of the lone individual. ‘Commercial society’, it was said, was isolating people, turning them into ‘detached and solitary beings’ preoccupied with their own interests and indifferent to their fellow beings.

Against this, defenders of solitude portrayed it as a site of personal authenticity and creativity, set apart from the shallow and corrupting vanities of ‘the world’.

These divergent views of solitude appeared in a wide variety of writings, including memoirs, philosophical works, novels, periodicals, travel writings, and of course poetry. This is the genre mostly closely identified with the valorisation of solitude, although here too anti-solitude sentiments intruded.

This module examines these competing visions of solitude in Enlightenment Britain and the cultural and intellectual developments that contributed to them.

It is a seminar-based module: each week students are provided with a selection of primary source materials for analysis and discussion.

You will study works by writers on solitude. These include Daniel Defoe, Lord Shaftesbury, Edward Young, David Hume, Dr Johnson, William Wordsworth, Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. You will explore these in relation to the changing forms and meanings of solitude in a modernising society.