A Woman Alone in London: On the Literature of Solitude
"A Solitary Life is No Less Liberated Than One That is Lived More Publicly"
The summer before I turned 30, I found myself recently single, ostensibly homeless, and without employment. The shape and texture of my life as I’d known it had disappeared. I felt a strange, unsettling sense of freedom, but it was also as if I’d mislaid something of myself. In short, I was untethered.
I spent July and August living off the Bethnal Green Road in East London, flat-sitting for the sister of a friend’s husband I’d never even met. Since there were no pets to look after—if you didn’t count the legions of mice the building was infested with—not even a plant in need of watering, she was doing me a huge favor: a couple of months’ grace, rent-free, while I found somewhere more permanent to live, somewhere to while away my time until I began teaching again in the autumn.
It rained a lot that summer. When I think back to it now, my mind fills with water cascading from overflowing drainpipes, the sloshing of waterlogged pavements beneath my feet, and the gush of flooded drains. The pouring rain, that mixed with filth as it ran in streams along the gutters, left grimy, streaky splatters up the backs of my bare legs. My feet were often sodden, a small hole in the leather by the toe of my right shoe an inlet of watery ingress under constant assault.
My memories of this loosed state, combined with this day-in, day-out dampness, merge in my mind with my recollections of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore and the bunch of bedraggled misfits therein, “creatures neither of firm land nor water,” living on houseboats on London’s Battersea Reach in the early 1960s. Fitzgerald, always something of an outsider herself—she took up writing late in life and became the unexpected winner of the Booker Prize in 1979, for Offshore—was drawn to people living on the fringes, those who didn’t quite fit in. Novels, she once told her American editor, should be written about “human beings who you think are sadly mistaken.”
“It’s right for us to live where we do, between land and water,” one of the barge-dwellers says to Nenna, the novel’s hapless heroine: “You, my dear, you’re half in love with your husband, then there’s Martha who’s half a child and half a girl, Richard who can’t give up being half in the Navy, Willis who’s half an artist and half a longshoreman, a cat who’s half alive and half dead . . . ” Fitzgerald’s own time living on “an old wooden barge” on the Thames named Grace, “a battered, patched, caulked, tar-blackened hulk, heaving up with difficulty on every rising tide,” provided her with the raw material for the novel. It was a story, as her biographer Hermione Lee puts it, “salvaged from personal anguish”—a period later described by Fitzgerald’s daughter Tina (who was 11 at the time) and upon whom the character of Martha, Nenna’s daughter, was based, as “rough, cold, grim, wet.”
Offshore haunted me that summer; or perhaps it just entwined itself with my memories of those months. Like Fitzgerald and her protagonists, I was unmoored, both from the wider world around me, and from my own sense of self. I was present but also somehow absent, restless yet slovenly. When images of this summer flash into my mind, I am always by myself, though this can’t be strictly true; I know it isn’t. I sat alone in the flat reading books, wrapped in the one warm cardigan I’d packed, meagre protection against the chilly air that accompanied the rain falling outside from the permanently leaden sky, the windows forever cracked open in an attempt to ward off the slightly sweet, ripe stench of the overflowing kitchen bin I couldn’t be bothered to carry down four flights of stairs. An especially lazy move given the mouse infestation. I looked on Nenna’s hopeless inaction—she’s torn between the half-life of the water and “[a]byss after abyss of respectability” that threatens to swallow her up on dry land; both alienating, though in different ways—with a feeling of deep empathy. I keenly felt the impossibility of her options.
That summer I, too, was lingering undecided between two states. I knew—or at least I hoped—that the in-betweenness I was experiencing would most likely be short lived. For those of us whose lives are defined by the beginnings and ends of university semesters, there’s always something liminal about those empty summer months. As such, a part of me rested easy in the knowledge that whatever loneliness I was feeling would soon come to an end, and that, without the necessity of making a particular decision one way or the other, I would be thrown back into the slipstream that is life in a busy city. At the same time, however, I flirted with another potential image of my future, one in which I found a way to continue to live alone (on my own dollar), rather than throwing my lot in with a new partner with whom I would inevitably end up co-habiting. This alternative version of my future wasn’t one of barren and empty isolation; instead it offered me the sanctity of solitude.
The summer drew to a close and I left the mice to their own devices. At the beginning of September, I moved into a flat-share on Great Ormond Street in Bloomsbury, an area of the city I’d known since I first arrived in London as a student a decade earlier. It seemed fitting that my arrival here as a bonafide resident should coincide with the beginning of a new academic year, even if I was now giving lectures rather than attending them. Moving here was strangely like coming home, the familiarity of these streets having been a rare constant throughout peripatetic years during which I’d moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, living with different people.
There was also something about Bloomsbury in particular that resonated with my idea of myself as a single woman forging an independent life, my footsteps echoing the freedoms of the literary women who had walked the same pavements before me. Virginia Woolf famously taking to the streets under the guise of shopping for a pencil to bring back to her room of her own. Poor, unhappy Charlotte Mew, and an often equally miserable Katherine Mansfield, both of whom lived there, as well as writing about the district.
Then there was Dorothy L. Sayers, whose Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries I’d read avidly as a teenager. I remember the joy I felt on first discovering the blue plaque decorating the house on nearby Great James Street where Sayers made her home in the 1920s. Bloomsbury is the setting for much of the action of her 1930 novel Strong Poison, in which the fictional crime writer Harriet Vane (whom Sayers has residing in a bachelorette flat in nearby Doughty Street; the street, incidentally, on which Mew was born) is accused of murdering her ex-lover Phillip Boyes. That they had lived together without being married doesn’t exactly count in Harriet’s favor, and during her trial the prosecution sniffily refers to “the bohemians of Bloomsbury” in an attempt to undermine the defendant’s character and highlight her loose morals. As an impressionable adolescent growing up in bourgeois, rural Oxfordshire, I had wanted nothing more than to become an urban bohemian.
I came to London to study literature, so perhaps it’s only natural that my existence here has always been tempered by the books I’ve read that are set in the city, a potent alchemy at work in the particular way in which the real and the fictional combine in my mind. My experience in this city has always been twofold, containing and dependent on both my lived experience and the very real topography of the streets, as well as the fictional versions of the same city I have read about in novels. They intertwine, and in doing so become indistinguishable from one another.
“Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them,” writes Joan Didion in The White Album. Before I came across this line, I’d struggled to articulate my thoughts about my relationship to the city I live in, but trust Didion to have already found the words for me. “It is hard to see one of these places claimed by fiction without a sudden blurring, a slippage, a certain vertiginous occlusion of the imagined and the real.”
I read Jean Rhys, for example, before I moved to London, and the streets her penniless heroines aimlessly wandered along in the 1920s and 30s, reluctant to return to their lonely rented rooms, were those I wanted to tramp along in what I then regarded as romantic solitude. I read Barbara Comyns’s mid-century portraits of domestic horror and poverty shortly after I moved to town, of Sophia and her new husband in Our Spoons Came From Woolworths setting up home in a flat on Haverstock Hill from the pseudo-domestic comfort of my own not ten minutes away. I was not a newlywed, but I was living with a partner for the first time and we certainly didn’t have much money. I turned to Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, with its depiction of London during the war, when I was living in Marylebone and Fitzrovia. Bowen’s Regent’s Park merged with the one whose paths I paced. Her wartime city—a world of living among other people’s things in other people’s rooms, all made of “paper,” so easily smashed to blazes—was strangely familiar since at this point in my life I was living on what felt like borrowed time in a house that wasn’t my own in the final throes of a relationship on which the clock was ticking. And it was Offshore that haunted my lonely, damp summer in the East End.
A couple of years ago, shortly after it was published, a friend and I were in a café in the North London neighborhood in which I now live, discussing Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City. There was only one other customer in the place, and after he’d finished his coffee, he stopped by our table on the way to the door. He apologized for interrupting us, but said that he couldn’t help but overhear our conversation, especially since our subject was one close to his heart. He ran a local charity, he explained, that combated loneliness. Were we aware, he continued, of the growing numbers of people afflicted, and did we realize the practical implications of this book, how helpful it would be in terms of legitimizing such suffering? He spoke of loneliness as an epidemic, invisible but all around us, reminiscent of the idea of “pathologization” that Laing describes: the problem of loneliness “being considered a disease.” And like any unpleasant malady, she explains, it is not done to admit to one’s infirmity, not least because “victim blaming” ensues, “a tendency to see the rejection of lonely people as justified, or to assume they have brought the condition on themselves by being too timid or unattractive, too self-pitying or self-absorbed.”
The novelist Anita Brookner knew this all too well, admitting that she sometimes regretted her third novel Look at Me because of what it implied about her own life: “When I published it, a very old friend of my mother’s summoned me and said, ‘You are getting yourself a bad reputation as a lonely woman. Stop it at once.’ She was right: it sticks.”
Later on, after my friend and I had parted and I’d returned home, I realized I should have asked the man whether prescribing recommended reading was part of his practice. He could do worse, I thought, than thrust Look at Me into the hands of his clients, for here was a novel that captured all the melancholy but so too the majesty of single life.
I felt my own empathy with those the man had told us about. Reading The Lonely City was all it took to cast me back into the depths of my unmoored summer of in-betweenness. “You can be lonely anywhere,” Laing writes, “but there is a particular flavor to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation.” I had tasted this myself, albeit only in passing, but it was so distinct a tang, I wasn’t going to forget it for a long while. To this day it lingers in the recesses of my sensory memory, as evocative as the perfume one associates with a particular old flame.
“It’s possible—easy, even—to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others,” Laing continues. “Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather the absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. Unhappy, as the dictionary has it, as a result of being without the companionship of others. Hardly any wonder, then, that it can reach its apotheosis in a crowd.”
Reading this, once again my own experience merged into that which I’d only read about, but this time it was Brookner’s lonely heroines who crept surreptitiously into my mind, sparking synapses between the real and the fictional. However bleak their emotional lives—a step-up from the lost souls who populate Rhys’s works—Brookner’s women never find themselves out on the streets. Their bank balances remain more than healthy enough to support a roof over their heads—and usually a rather sought-after one at that: a mansion flat in genteel West London; Kensington and Chelsea feature regularly—while also keeping themselves in—that is, having enough money (and then some) for—tins of sardines and single tomatoes (no Brookner heroine has much of an appetite, but they do enjoy feeding their lovers). What they lack, however, are the psychological accouterments of home—that “delightful squalor” of living with others that Frances Hinton in Look at Me has “never been able to manage,” a certain “Sunday lethargy” that, as someone on her own, eludes her. “Mine is not a success story,” explains Miriam Sharpe in Falling Slowly: “I live on my own.” A thick seam of solitude runs through the bedrock of Brookner’s fiction. These heroines aren’t simply lonely; to borrow a phrase from Laing, they inhabit loneliness on a daily basis.
Following the deaths of her parents, Frances Hinton, an aspiring writer, stays on in the Maida Vale mansion flat—a “building for old people”—in which she grew up, alone except for Nancy, the Hintons’ aging housekeeper. “A glimpse of the world outside,” and with it a very different concept of home, is tantalizingly presented, like a branch flung into the grasp of one who’s drowning, via the friendship of two bright young things—Nick Fraser, a doctor who’s a regular visitor at the medical library where Frances works; and his wife Alix, the polar opposite of our retiring, unassuming heroine—who invite Frances to live with them.
She recognizes that moving out of her childhood home would be “symbolic,” that it would “signify a complete break with the old sad way of life,” yet Frances both declines to leave it of her own accord, and ignores the lifeline Nick and Alix cast her way. She entertains “fantasies” of companionship and sociability: of a life in which she would spend her evenings “sitting on somebody’s bed, exchanging confidences, keeping up with each other’s love affairs, comparing clothes, trying out new hairstyles.” But this is not the life she wants to lead. Even the prospect of “a candid attic somewhere, all white and gold and empty, looking over trees,” wouldn’t suit her. “Then I finger the gold brocade curtains, with their tasseled gold tie-backs, and I think how my mother used to stand at the window, waiting for my father to come home. And then I know that I will stay.”
“A thick seam of solitude runs through the bedrock of Brookner’s fiction. These heroines aren’t simply lonely; to borrow a phrase from Laing, they inhabit loneliness on a daily basis.”
Parents—especially mothers—who exert a curtailing influence over the lives of their grown daughters are a recurring motif in Brookner’s fiction. It is all the more terrifying therefore, when, after an epic midnight walk home across London following a harrowing evening that marks the end of her association with Nick and Alix, Frances arrives at the flat to find herself locked out, forced to summon Nancy with the doorbell. “This place of regularity, and sound, if valetudinarian, habits, this serious place, always so quiet and so measured, was now violated, at two in the morning, by the harsh sound of a preemptory bell.” It’s a moment of dislocating horror, an unmooring of Frances’ own: a simultaneous shattering of both the fantasy of the new and the fantasy of the familiar.
“She understands a hell of sorts,” was my novelist friend Grace McCleen’s summation of Brookner after she read Look At Me. I had recommended the novel to her after a fervent bout of evangelizing about Brookner’s genius. In my mind, it’s both her masterpiece and the most convincing depiction of the various pushes and pulls of solitary life. The chilling final sentence invokes both imprisonment and emancipation: “Nancy shuffles down the passage, and I hear her locking the front door. It is very quiet now. A voice says, ‘My darling Fan.’ I pick up my pen. I start writing.” Frances’s creativity is innately bound up in her loneliness. It’s both a coping mechanism—“When I feel swamped in my solitude and hidden by it, physically obscured by it, rendered invisible, in fact, writing is my way of piping up”—and a lifestyle choice that enables her to write. Her plaintive silent cry from which the novel takes its name alludes to the same dichotomy: she wants to be seen, but she also wants to see those around her. “Look at me” in order that I might see you better. Frances is a flâneuse of a sort—it’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that long walks across the city play a central role in the novel—for whom everything she observes is fodder for her work. However, to reclaim the streets is one thing, but to reclaim the domestic interior is another entirely.
For each of the other writers I’ve mentioned here, the physical practicalities of home—sinking boats, grim bedsits, rent one can’t afford, entire homes bombed out of existence—prove just as precarious as the psychology behind the concept but for Brookner it is the latter that takes center stage. The concept of home, a constant preoccupation in her work, is the thorniest of subjects, equal parts hostile and hospitable, and Brookner’s heroines are forced to reconcile the fantasies so many of them harbor of an idyllic, ideal domestic environment—“a concept, like the grail,” admits Miriam Sharpe—with an often claustrophobic reality. As Edith Hope in Hotel du Lac admits, “it was home, or rather ‘home,’ which had become inimical all at once.”
The first really interesting thing we learn about Edith—other, of course, than the fact she’s a writer of romance novels “under a more thrusting name”—is that she “should have been at home.” Instead, having embarrassed herself by jilting her perfectly nice but decidedly vapid fiancé Geoffrey, she’s been sent away to Switzerland in disgrace. Back during their engagement, looking around her affianced’s house in Marylebone’s Montagu Square, Edith realises that a marital home is much more than mere bricks and mortar. As a single woman lacking a certain social gravitas, it’ll provide her with “that life that she supposed other women have: shopping, cooking, arranging dinner parties, meeting friends for lunch.”
For many years I had little interest in reading Brookner. Her unfair reputation as a writer of “spinster novels”—I envisaged little old ladies taking tea with curates—had preceded her, and prior to ever delving into their pages, I labored under the misapprehension that there would be nothing of interest to me therein. What a surprise, then, when I finally picked one up to read, to discover just how very wrong I’d been. She doesn’t write about spinsters at all; or, perhaps I should say that she doesn’t write about women who conform to the unfair, inelegant spinster stereotype. To dismiss her articulate, intelligent, and more often than not single heroines—women who are plagued by conflicting desires they’re often incapable of reconciling—as spinsters, is to do them a huge disservice.
The kind of women I don’t want to read about are those who spend their lives shopping, cooking, arranging dinner parties, and meeting friends for lunch. By comparison, it’s the Edith Hopes and Frances Hintons of this world whom I do want to spend time with. Their complex relationships with their aloneness have not only offered me a sense of much needed solidarity in moments of my own, but their existence has also shown me that a solitary life is no less liberated than one that is lived more public. I had not yet discovered Brookner’s fiction that long, wet summer, but I wish I had. Frances would have made the perfect companion for Nenna and I; each of us a woman somehow out of step with the wider world around us.
In the same way that Laing’s work brings to light the side of loneliness we often ignore—that it can be productive, creative; that it can be something that illuminates rather than obscures—so too Brookner’s works depict the flip-side to this all too eagerly avoided state. “Loneliness can be acceptable, you know,” Miriam Sharpe explains to her ex-husband when he tries to convince her that they should reunite: “Even companionable.” I’m desperately sympathetic to Edith Hope’s rejection of the comforts of marital life; to her refusal to settle for anything less than the kind of fairytale endings she bestows upon her own heroines; to her acts of bravery in the face of both boring Geoffrey and the supercilious Mr. Neville, a fellow guest at the Swiss hotel who takes her by surprise with his proposal of a marriage of convenience. “As my wife, you will do very well,” he tells her. “Unmarried, I’m afraid you will soon look a bit of a fool.”
Thirty-odd years on and this presumption hasn’t changed.
There’s an age, Laing explains, “at which female aloneness is no longer socially sanctioned and carries with it a persistent whiff of strangeness, deviance and failure.” Were I to find myself unmoored again, I have no doubt I would experience this firsthand. I am now of an age where even among the most progressive of circles, a single woman is still looked upon with suspicion. Despite all our advances, the figure of the lone woman is still considered deviant in some way. Yet even in full knowledge of this, I must confess that the single life still exerts its own distinctive allure.
When I finally found Look at Me, I read it as if it was 1960 and I was clandestinely reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover—it seems to offer something forbidden yet longed for. It seems crazy that, as Joanna Scutts argues, Marjorie Hillis’s “surprise bestseller” from 1936, How to Live Alone and Like It, a book which “urged spinsters, divorcées, widows and old maids to throw off the disparaging nicknames and grudging charity of their families, and remake themselves as chic, independent ‘Live-Aloners,’ who made their own choices, mixed their own cocktails and didn’t give a hoot what anyone else had to say about it,” should still to this day be a testament to a brief period of celebratory female freedom.
What makes Look at Me such an appealing book about the solitary life is the way in which it walks the fine line between the dreaded horror of being on the outside looking in, and the sense that such solitude can be one’s most fervent desire. It confirms that, for some, awkward insecurities the like of which we usually associate with adolescence never go away. But as hard as I try to resist it, still I find something tantalizing about Frances’s situation—to turn Miriam Sharpe’s analogy on its head, the solitary existence is something of my holy grail.
By means of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes and Virginia Woolf, we have become accustomed to women desiring lives of their own, but to wish for a life on one’s own seems somehow perverse, like admitting to an erotic proclivity others regard as unsavory and aberrant. But this is why my memory of that particular summer still holds such sway. Of all the risqué behavior I indulged in during my youth, the period I spent not just single, but actively embracing my aloneness somehow feels like the most transgressive act of all.
Feature image: detail from Alone in London (1894) by Thomas Alexander Ferguson Graham.