From splendid to stressful: a short history of isolation

Steven Poole
Photograph: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

“Isolation is the sum-total of wretchedness to man,” wrote the historian Thomas Carlyle in 1843, which might sound dispiriting today. But he did not mean the confinement of quarantine. Rather, he meant the social isolation of every person in a country already worshipping what he called the “Mammon Gospel”.

The word was still new in English: even the verb “isolate” is unrecorded before the 19th century. It comes from the Latin insulare, literally meaning “to make into an island”. Indeed, the cliched formula “splendid isolation” derives from someone talking about an island nation: in 1896, the Canadian prime minister described Britain as “splendidly isolated … this isolation of England comes from her superiority”.

Isolation could once indeed be regarded as a luxury for the rich and powerful: not long ago, one could hear reports of celebrity wellness regimes involving “isolation tanks”, which Carlyle would have regarded as a symptom of the deeper spiritual isolation of modern society. For him, Victorian capitalism encouraged “not a mutual helpfulness; but rather … a mutual hostility”. It is yet possible to hope that the present crisis reduces such isolation even as it enforces the physical kind.

• Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.