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Cultures of Solitude

Loneliness – Limitation – Liberation

Edited By Ina Bergmann and Stefan Hippler

This collection of essays comprises cultural analyses of practices of eremitism and reclusiveness in the USA, which are inseparably linked to the American ideals of individualism and freedom. Covering a time frame from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, the essays study cultural products such as novels, poems, plays, songs, paintings, television shows, films, and social media, which represent the costs and benefits of deliberate withdrawal and involuntary isolation from society. Thus, this book offers valuable contributions to contemporary cultural discourses on privacy, surveillance, new technology, pathology, anti-consumerism, simplification, and environmentalism. Solitaries can be read as trailblazers for an alternative future or as symptoms of a pathological society.

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“The Luxury of Solitude”: Conduct, Domestic Deliberation, and the Eighteenth-Century Female Recluse (Coby Dowdell)

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Coby Dowdell

“The Luxury of Solitude”: Conduct, Domestic Deliberation, and the Eighteenth-Century Female Recluse

Abstract: This essay considers the cultural relevance of fables of female reclusion during the post-revolutionary period, and it argues that these fables reinforce the enhanced status of republican femininity during the period by offering the useful fantasy of the single woman who voluntarily practices the domestic reclusion expected of the republican wife.

1. The Inevitability of Female Reclusion

Hannah Webster Foster’s popular seduction narrative, The Coquette (1797), predictably concludes with Eliza Wharton’s seduction, pregnancy, and death in an isolated tavern. While seemingly conventional in its presentation of coquetry and seduction, Foster’s novel repeatedly redirects the reader’s attention to discourses of confinement and reclusion. The repeated trope of reclusion figures both physical and epistemological confinement, twinning the spatial confinement of the post-revolutionary wife within the home with the epistemological confinement of women’s intellectual freedom to questions of courtship, matrimony, and maternity. While one is tempted to see the female recluse as a woman who valiantly resists the limited options afforded women during the period, eighteenth-century narratives of female reclusion reinforce conservative ideologies of femininity.

Social historians have focused much attention on the shifting conceptions of maternity and matrimony during the post-revolutionary period. Linda Kerber’s influential study of republican maternity explains the development of women’s enhanced domestic role as moral guarantors of civic virtue (229). Jan Lewis’s complementary study of republican matrimony argues that contemporary anxieties about political enthusiasm and civic disinterest encouraged a companionate ideal of marriage held together by the moderating affections and “self-abasing virtue” of the republican wife (714). And yet, the social conditions prompting these ideologies – shifting marriage patterns, improved educational opportunities, and increased expectations for female self-determination – produced an especially unsettling moral terrain for the single woman. Raised to expect greater possibilities than their mothers in terms of education, courtship, and matrimony, the post-revolutionary feme sole’s “rising expectation for self-fulfillment” sat uneasily with ← 79 | 80 → “the isolation of married women within a separate domestic sphere” (Mintz 63). For women coming of age in the last decades of the century, anxieties about shifting perceptions of marriage and singlehood were exacerbated by the paucity of models encouraging single women to embrace “domestic retirement and conjugal-family intimacy” (Chambers-Schiller 157) over the circulatory freedoms of “fashionable sociability” (Cott 92). This essay argues that the narratives of female reclusion available to the American reader offered models of female behavior appropriate to the changing social expectations of post-revolutionary singlehood.

The Coquette’s nuanced attention to a duality of female reclusion delineates the model of femininity promoted by these narratives. Following her seduction by Major Sanford, Eliza declares that she is “now trying what a recluse and solitary mode of life will produce” (147). Forced to abandon the “company and amusements of the town” in disgrace, she proclaims that “the world is to me a desart [sic]!” (147). Foster’s characterization of the fallen woman as recluse reiterates the generic conventions of the eighteenth-century seduction narrative, associating her protagonist with a long line of “pale, emaciated” heroines who, like Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe and Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple before her, patiently resign themselves to beatific extinction as “poor solitary being[s], without society” (Rowson 106, 67). In this regard, the reclusive demise of Foster’s protagonist appears to caution women against the potential dangers of “fashionable sociability.” However, Foster insists that female reclusion is not a fate limited to the fallen woman; the feme covert or married woman is similarly fated to exclusion from public life. As early as her fifth letter, Eliza considers the inevitable domestic confinement attending marriage to the text’s stalwart minister, Rev. Boyer. “‘You are not so morose,’” she asks her friend, Lucy Freeman, “‘as to wish me to become a nun, would our country, and religion allow it?’” (39). In a subsequent conversation with Mrs. Richman, the text’s archetypal Republican Mother, Eliza explains that she “despise[s] those contracted ideas which confine virtue to a cell. I have no notion of becoming a recluse” (44). Her resistance to the “contracted ideas” (44) of matrimony appears to reinforce Cathy Davidson’s reading of The Coquette as a didactic meditation on “the legal liabilities of the feme covert” (199). However, by figuring both the fallen woman and the feme covert as recluses, Foster complicates the didactic assumptions of the seduction narrative.

Readers cannot avoid the fact that, by dying alone in an isolated tavern, Eliza becomes “what she once dreaded above all things, a recluse!” (126). The irony of Eliza’s demise is that she becomes a recluse despite her resistance to marital confinement. While she “recoil[s] at the thought of immediately forming a connection, which must confine [her] to the duties of domestic life” (126), her avoidance of matrimony through the imprudent encouragement of a known libertine results ← 80 | 81 → in a reclusion similar to that which she fears from marriage. By insisting that the ultimate outcome for both the coquette and the married woman is reclusion, Foster stresses that the primary cause of Eliza’s fall is neither coquetting past her prime nor encouraging the attentions of a known libertine, but rather a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the feme sole’s social independence. Rather than offering readers a didactic warning against either the dangers of seduction or the “legal liabilities” (Davidson 199) of married life, Foster attacks the root cause of Eliza’s fall: the misguided assumption that single life is markedly distinct from married life.

Foster’s interest in discourses of reclusion highlights Eliza’s misunderstanding of premarital social circulation. Because Eliza understands matrimony as diametrically opposed to the ostensible freedoms of singlehood, she is understandably reluctant to sacrifice social independence for what she perceives to be the circumscribed existence of the feme covert. Foster’s novel attempts to correct this misunderstanding by insisting that the feme sole’s social independence only exists to secure an economically advantageous and morally beneficial marriage, not to pursue individual desires outside narratives of courtship and matrimony. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg is certainly correct that Eliza’s susceptibility to seduction arises from a “gendered misprisioning of the political and economic discourses of its time” (169). I would argue, however, that Eliza’s misunderstanding stems from her naive polarizing of the “pleasures which youth and innocence afford” the feme sole and the “contracted ideas” which govern the feme covert (Foster 44).1 Locating individual liberty exclusively in the capacity to circulate freely in the public sphere, Eliza misunderstands domesticity and matrimony as the sacrifice of such autonomy.2 In contrast to the “scene of constraint and confinement” that Eliza imagines marriage to be, Mrs. Richman argues that “the glory of the marriage state [is] to refine, by circumscribing our enjoyments,” to produce a “little community which we superintend” (123). The feme covert’s management of the domestic sphere is, accordingly, “quite as important an object; and certainly renders us more beneficial to the public” than the feme sole’s superficial sociability (123). Crucially, Richman understands a woman’s “little [domestic] community” as a micro-community situated across the conventional division of public and private domains. The social benefit of the feme covert as superintendent of this “little community” paradoxically depends on her ability to expand the influence of domestic morality across the threshold of the private realm, bringing the virtues of female reclusion into the public arena. By emphasizing the feme covert’s social obligation to circulate beyond the bounds of the domestic sphere while paradoxically remaining physically and morally separate from the public world, Richman trumps Eliza’s view of matrimony as the curtailment of female autonomy. ← 81 | 82 →

Troping matrimony and coquetry/seduction as differential forms of female reclusion, Foster aims to discourage women from exaggerating the distinction between the freedoms of singlehood and the constrictions of matrimony. Stressing the inevitable exclusion of women from public life, narratives of female reclusion such as The Coquette recommend that women confront the challenges of single life by cultivating a love of domestic confinement prior to marriage. If the sentimental heroine of Foster’s seduction narrative must shamefully withdraw from society for exceeding the bounds of feminine propriety, Foster’s second novel, The Boarding School; Or, Lessons of A Preceptress to Her Pupils (1798), insists that female reclusion might also represent an intellectually and morally vibrant space consistent with the social expectations of republican matrimony and maternity. By reframing the single life as a preparatory training ground for married life, Foster encourages women to enter the public sphere only occasionally, for the express purpose of finding a husband. Rather than dramatizing the possibilities of intellectual and social independence ostensibly afforded by single life, narratives of female reclusion offer the useful fantasy of the single woman who voluntarily practices the domestic reclusion expected of the republican wife ex ante. Lucy’s anxiety about her friend’s increased withdrawal from society highlights Foster’s awareness of the duality of female reclusion: “‘Avoid solitude,’” Lucy cautions Eliza, “‘[i]t is the bane of a disordered mind; though of great utility to a healthy one’” (128). Lucy’s attention to both the positive and negative consequences of solitude clarifies the didactic utility of the female recluse during the late eighteenth-century.

For readers and writers of the post-revolutionary period, the term ‘reclusion’ conveys the dualistic and often ambiguous nature of female isolation more effectively than its synonyms. Accordingly, I follow the preference of contemporary writers such as Foster, who privilege reclusion over related terms such as ‘seclusion,’ ‘retirement,’ ‘isolation,’ and ‘withdrawal.’ Etymologically, reclusion denotes voluntary withdrawal from society for religious, moral, or philosophical reasons. Late eighteenth-century usage, however, augments this meaning with the additional sense of “being confined as a prisoner” (OED). The term ‘reclusion’ effectively captures the nuanced difference conveyed by modern distinctions between solitude as voluntary withdrawal and isolation as forcible exclusion. To speak of female solitaries or hermits as recluses captures the ambiguous sense of voluntary and involuntary solitude shared by Foster and her contemporaries.

This essay offers an inquiry into discourses of female reclusion during the post-revolutionary period, one that attempts to explain Foster’s nuanced appreciation of solitude and isolation in terms of larger narrative traditions of female reclusion popular at the time. A comparison of representations of female recluses in fictional ← 82 | 83 → and nonfictional advice literature of the period reveals the extent to which narratives of female reclusion reimagine domestic confinement as a voluntarily chosen lifestyle. The first section of the essay situates Foster’s ambiguous representation of female reclusion within a dual narrative tradition of punitive reclusion, adopted from the eighteenth-century seduction narrative, and deliberative reclusion, adopted from early modern humanism and Protestant devotional practice. The second section pairs fictionalized accounts of female recluses with contemporary conduct literature to illustrate how both the punitive and deliberative traditions are subsumed into the fable of the female recluse. The essay concludes by assessing the didactic utility of such fables for reinforcing the enhanced status of republican singlehood during the post-revolutionary period.

2. Punitive Reclusion

The provenance of post-revolutionary fables of female reclusion can be traced to Marchioness de Lambert, Anne-Therese de Marguenat de Courcelles’s well-known novella, The Fair Solitary; or, Female Hermit. Originally published posthumously as La femme hermite (1749), Lambert’s French tale first appears in translation in The Works of the Marchioness de Lambert (London, 1749). British booksellers saw little of interest in Lambert’s novella to warrant separate publication; by contrast, American booksellers honored The Fair Solitary with multiple standalone editions. Beginning with William Spotswood’s Philadelphia edition (1790), the decade witnessed the publication of two additional editions of Lambert’s text by booksellers in Boston (Samuel Hall, 1794) and New London, Connecticut (James Springer, 1797).3 Lambert’s novella is advertised for sale by American booksellers as late as 1803, while circulating libraries as late as 1819 list the book among its esteemed collections. On the one hand, the uniquely American interest in Lambert’s text speaks to a sustained interest in the figure of the hermit during the post-revolutionary period. On the other hand, Lambert’s popularity as an author of conduct literature offers an important additional context for evaluating post-revolutionary interest in the female recluse. The latter point highlights a repeated pattern during the post-revolutionary years of supplementing advice on female conduct with demonstrative fables of female hermits.

Generically speaking, Lambert’s The Fair Solitary owes much to Eliza Haywood’s The British Recluse or, The Secret History of Cleomira, Suppos’d Dead (1722).4 Both Haywood and Lambert’s texts adhere to the conventions of the male hermit’s tale, which rose to prominence during the post-revolutionary period (Dowdell 130–31; Slauter 215–40). In these highly formulaic narratives, travellers discover an old hermit in a secluded cave or grotto. After a hospitable welcome ← 83 | 84 → and a hearty organic repast, the travellers demand an account of the hermit’s rationale for retiring from the world. Constituting the narrative core of the hermit’s tale, the hermit’s backstory invariably involves his self-delusion or betrayal by the false pleasures of urban society, pleasures including unchecked social climbing, an unhealthy adherence to social status, libertinism, and seduction. The generic alignment of the hermit’s tale with the eighteenth-century seduction narrative is not an aberration, and the backstories of Haywood and Lambert’s tales follow suit, populating the recluse’s tale with the imprudent maidens, wily libertines, and unwanted pregnancies typical of the genre. If the male hermit is often an erstwhile libertine, rake, or bigamist, the female hermit is most often a coquette or an imprudent maiden who, refusing the council of parents and friends, ends up in a dangerous game of seduction with a predatory libertine.

Haywood and Lambert’s texts amplify the topographical costs of seduction implied by typical seduction narratives of the period. Disgusted by a world governed by libertine duplicity and publicly shamed by her own actions, Haywood’s Cleomira fakes her own death and retires to a rooming house where she assumes her identity as the titular recluse. The topography of social ostracization stressed by the female recluse’s tale has the additional effect of reorienting the generic focus from the elaborate machinations of the libertine to questions of the heroine’s culpability. The self-denigration of Lambert’s eponymous hermit highlights this reorientation:

I lose an accomplished Prince, said I; I have not loved him when his Passion meeting with a Return from mine might have made us happy … I have been the Victim of [a libertine’s] Vanity. My Life, my Reputation, all is to be enveloped in the Odium of Guilt … Why do I fly? It would be too happy for me to be sacrificed to their just resentment … shame getting the better of my desperate resolution, I could think of nothing but hiding myself from [those of my sex], and seeking some forlorn cave, where I might spend the remainder of my days. (55)

By connecting the ruined reputation of the fallen woman with the female hermit, Lambert insists that diverging from the narrow limitations of female propriety results in punitive exclusion from society. Weighed down by recognition of her own imprudence, the Lady “went out early in the morning … and perceiving a hut,” which was once “an hermitage,” removed herself where no body would “interrupt [her] solitude and grief” (56–57). As a fallen woman bereft of viable options for the future, the “fair solitary” is sentenced to physical banishment by a society governed by double standards of sexual propriety. Crucially, while the male hermit’s backstory invariably hinges on the hermit’s critique of societal flaws, the female hermit’s backstory consistently turns inward to judge the woman’s behavior against conventional gender norms. ← 84 | 85 →

“The Hermitess; or Fair Secluder,” appearing in The Massachusetts Magazine (November 1790) under the pseudonym Lavinia, replicates the punitive reclusion of Haywood and Lambert’s female solitaires.5 Meandering through the “sweet musing silence” of an isolated grove, the speaker’s “meditation [is] interrupted by a voice more harmonic than the melody of Philomel” (689). Distracted by a woman named Hermitessa, upon whose countenance “[g]rief had left [its] traces” (689), the speaker watches as the titular hermitess “entered a gloomy grot” (689). Crucially, the presence of an ambiguous urn, “the sad, mausoleum of some hapless youth, who doubtless had fallen like the fragrant floweret, once the valley’s pride; but nipt in the bloom, ere the dew of life has left its leaves” (689), suggests Hermitessa’s solitude be read as punishment. Although she is vague about the nature of her crimes, Hermitessa’s self-conscious warning to “the volatile and young, who dance in the giddy circles of gaiety” (689) is clear. Addressing those “who now bow at the shrine of pleasure, and think felicity their own” (689), the fair secluder aligns herself with contemporary representations of the coquette to suggest that the urn’s ashes belong to a child born out of wedlock. Just as Haywood and Lambert stress the culpability of their female recluses, Lavinia’s hermitess insists that her presence in the woods is both punitive and didactic:

[T]hy will be done with cheerfulness by those whom thou hast taught the lesson. This have I learnt at thy benignant hand – thou hast clothed me with affliction and her power hath drawn me to this solitude, where misfortune keeps the school of wisdom. (689)

Connecting female reclusion with the consequences of coquetry, “The Hermitess” exemplifies contemporary cultural fascination with the story of the female recluse as a fable of affliction and penance. In her monumental study of early American pedagogy, Gillian Brown argues that “the forming of Americans depended upon the activities of associative thinking that fables instill” (59). America’s preference for the didactic authority of the fable is further investigated in Sarah Emily Newton’s study of American conduct literature, “Wise and Foolish Virgins: ‘Useable Fiction’ and the Early American Conduct Tradition” (1990). Newton argues that conduct literature of the period typically rehearsed the fable of the wise virgin and the foolish virgin: a “dual female model” of two girls with identical socio-economic, educational, and physical characteristics who, entering a social world, are tested by identical temptations (“Wise” 140). The wise virgin “conforms and is safe and happy; the foolish virgin disobeys and is miserable and punished severely” (145, see also 156).6 Much like Foster’s Eliza, the foolish virgin’s choice to disobey social convention invariably derives from her unwillingness to forego the pleasures of social circulation for matrimonial confinement. Texts such as The British Recluse, The Fair Solitary, and The Coquette reinforce the moral proscriptions ← 85 | 86 → of these fables, transforming the foolish virgin into a recluse who is punished by forcible physical expulsion from society.

The didactic utility of such fables is not, however, limited to its dramatization of the punitive reclusion of the fallen woman; rather, the fable of the female recluse flexibly dramatizes both the punitive reclusion of the foolish virgin and the prudent retirement of the wise virgin, a woman who “knows her place – the domestic sphere – which her heart (if it is true) and her training make the object of contentment” (Newton, “Wise” 144). Fables of female reclusion specify that the terms of the young woman’s training entail her contended acceptance of both matrimony and social retirement. In much the same way that fictional advice narratives oppose the wise and foolish virgin, fables of female reclusion juxtapose the punitive reclusion of the seduced maiden and the voluntary reclusion of the contented domestic lady. In the latter body of fables, the potentially foolish virgin avoids punitive reclusion only by cultivating an early love for solitary retirement, a goal achieved by accepting domesticity as the only safe haven in which her intellectual independence and moral rectitude can flourish unthreatened by libertine advances.

3. Deliberative Reclusion

If the tragic fall of The Coquette’s heroine exemplifies the punitive reclusion of the foolish virgin fable, Foster’s lesser known conduct novel, The Boarding School, recommends the voluntary deliberative reclusion of the wise virgin. Where The Coquette explains the real life ambiguities surrounding the meaning of female reclusion, The Boarding School clarifies the religious and moral benefits of voluntary retirement by organizing the school’s curriculum around various fables of solitude.7 Foster’s promotion of voluntary reclusion derives from two interrelated traditions: protestant closet retirement and humanist philosophical retirement. A letter from Caroline Littleton, one of the school’s pupils, exemplifies the first tradition by stressing the ability of James Thomson’s The Seasons (1730) to draw readers “to the contemplation of nature’s God” (293). For Caroline, Thomson’s imagery exemplifies the extent to which a contemplation of the seasonal transformation of the natural world causes “our hearts [to] beat response to the sentiments of gratitude” for the “glorious Being arrayed in love” (292). Nature’s ability to elicit a sympathetic correspondence between humanity and the deity is matched by its capacity to awe the human observer into humble self-awareness. Of particular interest to Caroline are Thomson’s remarks on solitude from “Summer”:

And yet was every faltering tongue of man,

Almighty Father! Silent in thy Praise;

Thy Works themselves would raise a general Voice, ← 86 | 87 →

Even in the Depth of solitary Woods,

By human Foot untrod, proclaim thy Power,

And to the Quire celestial Thee resound,

Th’eternal Cause, Support, and End of all! (qtd. in Foster 293)

Caroline’s attraction to Thomson’s poetry stems from the latter’s affirmation of Nature’s ability to teach “every faltering tongue of man” to humbly acknowledge their “own weakness and dependence” and “to adore and to fear that Divine Power, whose agency” is poignantly exhibited in “the Depth of the solitary Woods” (292). Following Thomson, Caroline understands that voluntary reclusion paradoxically expands as it contracts, and that confronting the sublimity of Nature shrinks the human ego as its enlarges one’s awareness of their place in God’s universe.8

The humble self-scrutiny celebrated by Caroline, what Karen A. Weyler rightly terms the “self-regulating virtue” of Mrs. Williams’s pupils (67), completes the central message of the female recluse fable by offsetting punitive reclusion with voluntary devotional retirement. “The Hermitess” similarly highlights this opposition succinctly, framing the story of Hermitessa’s punitive reclusion with the perspective of a narrator named Lavinia who willfully withdraws from the social world to enjoy the devotional effects of solitude identified by Caroline. Exemplifying Thomson’s beatification of the natural world, Lavinia finds the rural landscape to be a “lively picture of sympathetic benevolence”: a “sweet musing silence reigned” in the grove and “hushed the murmuring noise” of worldly cares (689). By voluntarily withdrawing to the woods, Lavinia presents a version of female reclusion distinct from Hermitessa’s punitive withdrawal, one that acclaims the capacity of occasional solitude to encourage humble self-reflection. The narrative tension between the frame and backstory of “The Hermitess” encapsulates the didactic aims of the female recluse fable. Hermitessa is doomed to contemplate the imprudence of her actions after the fact because she neglects to withdraw from the “giddy circles of gaiety” before the fact, to humble herself as Lavinia does before the “lively picture of sympathetic benevolence” expressed by Nature (689).

Lavinia’s solitary engagement with the divinity of the natural world turns her attention inward and highlights the extent to which retirement, by the start of the eighteenth century, aligned itself with protestant endorsements of closet retirement as “a tool for managing [and focusing] the attention” towards moral self-regulation (Edson 22). It is no coincidence that Foster’s boarding school is similarly isolated in the “peaceful shades” of Harmony-Grove (182). “In the shady bower,” one pupil insists, young women can “enjoy the luxury of solitude,” a luxury that gains value precisely because of its physical detachment from the “hurry and bustle” of social life (261). In much the same way that Lavinia’s peaceful grove “hushed the murmuring ← 87 | 88 → noise” (689) of worldly cares, the solitude of the boarding school encourages its pupils to redirect their minds from “dissipating pleasures” to their “own dignity and improvement” (251). The bucolic reclusion of Mrs. Williams’s school accentuates Foster’s support for closet retirement as way to ameliorate women’s domestic existence by redefining physical confinement as intellectual and spiritual expansion. As Mrs. Williams insists, the “confinement of the body” inevitably demanded of the feme covert during the eighteenth century “must be a state of inexpressible wretchedness” without the intellectual emancipation encouraged by devotional retirement and rational education (296).

Closet retirement encourages the kind of vigilant self-monitoring characteristic of the humanist’s rational detachment from the world. As I have argued elsewhere, the political significance of the American male hermit derives from the unique constellation of democratic freedom, hermitic reclusion, and rational deliberation. The post-revolutionary politics of the American hermit’s withdrawal inheres in his capacity to delay decision-making, to indefinitely defer taking sides and, in the process, define republican liberty as the freedom to rationally deliberate. Michel de Montaigne, in his essay “Of Solitude” (c. 1580), exemplifies the humanist tradition of philosophical or deliberative retirement underwriting post-revolutionary representations of the hermit, a tradition that privileges a “cultured retirement” conducive to “the pleasures of the mind” and the “dignity of human life when free from the drudgery of mundane toil” (Barbour, Value 80, 44).9

The individual who retires from the world, Montaigne insists, must “model his new life on the rules of reason, order it and arrange it by premeditation and reflection” (219–20). By insisting on solitude’s epistemological autonomy, Montaigne grounds individual liberty in the freedom to rationally deliberate upon the world, detached from the partisan views of others.10 Viscount Bolingbroke, in “Of the True Use of Retirement and Study” (1736), similarly celebrates retirement’s capacity to “abstract ourselves from the prejudices, and habits, and pleasures, and business of the world … to elevate [our] souls in retreat to higher station, and … take from thence such a view of the world” (514).11 Montaigne’s assertion that, in physically withdrawing from the world, “we must bring [the self] back and withdraw it into itself” (214) anticipates Bolingbroke’s lofty call for rigorous self-governance “in a state of freedom under the laws of reason” (513). “It is not enough to move” away physically, Montaigne argues, “we must get away from the gregarious instincts that are inside us, we must sequester ourselves and repossess ourselves” (213). Bolingbroke’s insistence on “contemplat[ing] ourselves, and others … through the medium of pure, and … undefiled reason” (513) redoubles the central imperative of Montaigne’s conception of solitude, that one must repossess the self through ← 88 | 89 → a leisured rational examination sequestered from the opinions of others. Both Montaigne and Bolingbroke insist that rational scrutiny of both the self and the world requires the time (if not the space) for studied deliberation.

A comparison of the fabulist narratives of The British Recluse and The Fair Solitary with nonfiction advice written by Haywood and Lambert underscores the repeated supplementation of religious retirement with the kind of dilatory rational deliberation articulated by Montaigne and Bolingbroke. Offering guidance on navigating the public world, Lambert’s popular conduct manual, “Advice of a Mother to a Daughter” (1729), advocates reclusion as the guarantee of moral propriety: “I think it best to avoid the world and making a figure … and be contended with being one’s own spectator” (177).12 On the one hand, Lambert’s focus on her daughter’s self-spectatorship accentuates reclusion’s encouragement of the kind of moral self-management characteristic of closet devotion. For Lambert, however, it is the cultivation of a woman’s rational capacities, rather than her piety, that will protect her from “the testimony of men [who] only deserve credit in portion to the degree of certainty which they have acquired by examining into facts” (189). While religiosity has its place, Lambert insists that women must learn to think rationally for themselves, extending their ideas beyond the opinions of others in the manner suggested by Montaigne and Bolingbroke: “Take not up with the sentiments of the people,” Lambert advises, “Form your own judgment without giving into received opinions, and get over the prejudices of your infancy” (190–91).

Paired with The Fair Solitary, Lambert’s maternal advice stresses the implicit moral of her fable: the fair solitary fails precisely because she neglects to incorporate periods of deliberative retreat into her life. As the fair solitary’s governess reflects: “An active hurrying life had indeed, encroached” on her ability to rationally deliberate. “Most women,” she insists, “void of thought or design of action, are hurried away by the first sentiment that pleases them” (27). Crucially, Lambert insists that independence of thought is possible only when you “secure yourself a retreat and a place of refuge in your own breast; you can always return thither, and be sure to find yourself again. When the world is less necessary to you, it will have less power over you” (“Advice” 191). For Lambert, the capacity of epistemological reclusion (“a place of refuge in your own breast”) to free women from the social authority of public scrutiny, by replacing external validation with rational self-judgment, depends upon physical reclusion from society. When you “use yourself to solitude,” she advises her daughter, when you “from time to time retire from the world to be alone,” you carve out a physical space of intellectual autonomy detached from the fickle world of social reputation, visitations and courtship (“Advice” 191–92). ← 89 | 90 →

The necessity of forging a solitary space for independent thought is redoubled by Haywood, who insists that The British Recluse is “a sad example of what Miseries may attend a Woman, who has no other Foundation for Belief in what her Lover says to her, than the good opinion her Passion has made her conceive of him” (2). The punitive reclusion suffered by Haywood’s recluse results from the same inability to rationally deliberate on the events of her life that hampers Lambert’s hermit: “If we cou’d bring our selves to depend on nothing but what we had Proof for, what a world of Discontent shou’d we avoid!” (1–2). In her eminently popular serial, The Female Spectator (1745), Haywood accents the moral of her fable, dedicating the entire fourth book to a discussion of voluntary reclusion.13 Perceiving a “Vacuum in the Mind” of her female contemporaries, Haywood argues that the cultivation of “a proper Love of Solitude at some Times” ameliorates the dangerous “Want of Thought, or … Thought misapplied” (200, 203, and 239). Temporary reclusion from the public world provides women with the time and space for self-scrutiny. “All kinds of Regulation and Management,” she suggests, “require some small Reflection and Recess from Company” (205). By sanctioning temporary “Recess from Company,” Haywood mirrors Lambert’s insistence that physical and intellectual withdrawal from the world permits women to “view [their] own imperfections” with clarity and “examine [their] own nature … [to] make the best of [their] defects” (“Advice” 194). Taken together, Lambert and Haywood’s texts argue that women who refuse to retire from the world to deliberate upon their options, to evaluate their own actions, and to scrutinize those of others expose themselves to men who prey on the harried thinking of women constantly in the public eye.

4. Domestic Deliberation

Haywood’s later Epistles for the Ladies (1750) offers a fabulist complement to the Female Spectator’s premise, arguing that women who cultivate temporary “Recess[es] from Company” are better able to avoid seduction. Writing to her persistent urban suitor, Lothario, “Gloriana in the Country” insists that one “must forget all Business, – forgo all Pleasures, – throw off all Desires, all Inclinations relating to this World” (281). “Having taken into [her] Head to study Philosophy,” Gloriana assumes the contours of masculine deliberative retirement by “retir[ing] into a little Cell … which just holds myself, and my Books” (278). Conscious that her reader may have “never heard of a Female Hermit, nor even imagined there was such a Thing” (278), Gloriana qualifies the apparent anomaly of female philosophical retirement by stressing that, while she appropriates the humanist tradition of masculine deliberative retirement, she employs this luxury of solitary thinking on the socially-acceptable female concerns of courtship and marriageability. ← 90 | 91 →

Much like Montaigne and Bolingbroke before her, Gloriana’s “little Cell” depends upon a mental separation from “destructive Pride and Vanity” of urban life (281). Unlike Montaigne’s confident claim that “real solitude … may be enjoyed in the midst of cities and the courts of kings” (214), the female hermit requires a protected physical space in which to freely deliberate. Women who expect the time for leisurely deliberation require a hut of their own, separate from a world that views them primarily as sexual commodities. By making Lothario’s visitation conditional on “never mention[ing] one Word of Love, Gallantry, or Politics,” Gloriana achieves a degree of control over the courtship process by slowing down Lothario’s persistent wooing and excluding such topics from conversation (281). Gloriana’s hut appears to exclude the social world of ceremony and courtship, affording its inhabitant a space removed from conventional gender expectations; more accurately, her hut ensures a physical and temporal recess from which she can rationally deliberate upon her future marriage prospects at leisure, while protecting herself against seduction. The woman who can suspend the forward momentum of courtship by temporarily retiring from the scene greatly reduces her chances of being seduced.

The female hermits and recluses who populate the texts of Haywood, Lambert, Foster, and Lavinia insist that a woman’s successful navigation of pre-marital life depends upon having a cloistered space of her own in which to “maturely weigh every consideration for and against, and deliberately determine with yourselves, what will be most conducive to your welfare and felicity in life” (Foster, Boarding School 229). Given that Mrs. Williams’s pupils are “young and inexperienced,” and therefore easy prey for “mere pleasure-hunters” preying on young ladies’ “false pride” and “fondness for flattery” (228), Mrs. Williams’s “plan of conduct” provides her pupils with the skills to “think and act more for” themselves while in the “single state” (202). As Weyler usefully observes, Mrs. Williams privileges “self-knowledge as a cultural cure-all, able to deflect flattery, resist seduction, and prevent private disappointment” (66). And yet, the acquisition of self-knowledge that Mrs. Williams’s “rational and discrete plan of thinking and acting” hopes to achieve is often too difficult to manage amidst the flurry of social engagements (229). Just as the boarding school’s pedagogical strength derives from its physical separation from the world, the self-knowledge of Harmony-Grove’s pupils derives from the protective isolation of their environment, an isolation that offers the luxury of leisurely contemplation. By encouraging women to carve out a hut of their own from which they might cultivate and hone their rational faculties, conduct writers refashion the inevitability of domestic confinement as informed choice.

Ostensibly ‘freeing’ women from enslavement to external validation, narratives of female reclusion encourage intellectual independence only insofar as it fosters a ← 91 | 92 → desire for matrimony and domestic confinement. Like Gloriana’s cell, Mrs. Williams’s curriculum insists that voluntary reclusion provides the feme sole with a time and space apart from the aggressive courting of libertines in which she can cautiously deliberate between “professions of sincere regard” and equivocal tokens that “a blind and misguided fancy paints in such alluring colours” (229). Harmony-Grove’s primary goal is “to domesticate” women and “turn their thoughts to the beneficial and necessary qualifications of private life” (180). Cultivating a love of reclusion prior to marriage renders domestic confinement not only manageable but preferable, by “seasonably inur[ing the single woman] to the sphere of life which Providence assigns” (289). Offering a model of prudential femininity suitable to both single and married life, fables of female reclusion encourage single women to model their behavior on the cloistered and contracted existence of the feme covert.

5. A Singular Reclusiveness

The cultural authority of republican matrimony and maternity during the post-revolutionary period presupposes a morally sanctioned republican model for the feme sole. Fables of female reclusion fill an important gap in the contemporary narratives of female moral maturation, by modeling the republican identity of the American single woman. The particular relevance of these fables is their capacity to simultaneously figure the two narrative possibilities available to the post-revolutionary single woman, encouraging the necessity of deliberative reclusion while warning against the inevitable punitive reclusion attending women who transgress conventional gender roles. By dramatizing differential forms of female reclusion, these fables locate the autonomy of the post-revolutionary woman along a continuum between voluntary and involuntary reclusion. Encouraging the feme sole to voluntarily choose reclusion prior to marriage, narratives of female reclusion re-conceptualize matrimony as an easy transition from one form of confinement to another by overwriting the perceived opposition between single freedom and married confinement. Moreover, these fables afford post-revolutionary society a convenient fantasy for imagining a woman’s willful acceptance of domesticity as an intellectually and morally vibrant space separated from a public sphere generally unreceptive to the learned woman. Judith Sargent Murray, in her influential essay, “On the Equality of the Sexes” (1790), similarly insists that, by “retiring into ourselves,” women may “indulge in all the refined and sentimental pleasures of contemplation” (224). “[T]hus filled” with rational subjects, the female mind would, according to Murray, “have little room for the trifles with which our sex are, with too much justice, accused of amusing themselves” (134). Murray’s support for the intellectual autonomy afforded by reclusion relates directly to women’s matrimonial ← 92 | 93 → future. By retiring from the public sphere, women “would become discreet,” she insists, “their judgments would be invigorated, and their partners for life being circumspectly chosen, an unhappy Hymen would then be as rare, as is now the reverse” (134). Recasting eighteenth-century domesticity not as a limiting confinement but as an autonomous and self-supporting intellectual protectorate, fables of female reclusion encourage women to exercise their rationality in ways suggested by Murray.14 In a private sphere withdrawn from the frivolities of the public realm, the post-revolutionary single woman is offered the luxury of solitary contemplation, albeit a luxury that confines rational contemplation to questions of sexual reputation, matrimonial choice, and maternal duty.

In stark contrast to the misanthropic recluse who turns away from the world in disgust or the sexual outlaw who refuses to abide by societal standards of female propriety, fables of female reclusion recommend withdrawal as the necessary prerequisite for the single woman’s socially proscribed domestic existence. As with the male hermitic tradition of the post-revolutionary period, the female recluse’s withdrawal from society entails a conscientious turn back to society from a privileged vantage point, bringing the insights of an abstracted rational deliberation to bear on her socially-expected role as wife and mother. As one eighteenth-century lady’s comments on the pleasures of retirement attest to, female reclusion “is certainly better for yourself, and more for the Security of Mankind, that you should live in some rural Abode, than appear in the World.” While “A Hermit’s Life might be tolerable … a more distant Retreat, in the full Pride of your Charms and Youth, would be very extraordinary.” When women retire from the world of “Belles and Beaux … for the sake of [both self-improvement and] heavenly Contemplation, the World will be reformed” (Kimber 160). Whether hermitic existence encourages humble religious reflection – to know thy place within God’s plan – or descends into obsessive self-denigration and unflagging penance, physical reclusion from the bustle of the world insists on a woman’s capacity to think long and hard on her place in society.


1. For a related discussion of Eliza’s naiveté regarding the distinction between public and private standards of behavior, see Weyler 153–54.

2. On Eliza’s understanding of individual liberty, see Gardner 749 and Stern 131–32.

3. Spotswood published two distinct versions of Lambert’s text in 1790: a standalone text and a supplement to the novel The School of Virtue. References are to Samuel Hall’s 1794 edition. ← 93 | 94 →

4. First published as a standalone text, Haywood’s British Recluse is later included in Secret Histories, Novels and Poems (1725), a four volume collection of Haywood’s novels readily available to post-revolutionary American readers from at least 1755–1803.

5. To my knowledge, the only other discussion of “The Hermitess” is Slauter’s brief assessment (220).

6. On the use of anecdote in conduct literature, see also Weikle-Mills 149–60 and Newton, Learning 63–96.

7. Pettengill’s suggestion that The Coquette and Boarding School function as “a two-part argument for the practical value of female friendship,” is equally germane to Foster’s interest in solitude and reclusion (189). On the relationship between Foster’s two novels, see also Weikle-Mills 51–54, Newton, “Wise” 149–60, and Weyler 63–68.

8. On the religious and psychological implications of outdoor experience, see Barbour, “View” 571 and Slovic.

9. On the larger tradition of philosophical retirement extending back to Socrates, see France 4–7.

10. For an excellent overview of Montaigne’s various remarks on solitude, see Barbour, Value 53–68.

11. The relevance of Bolingbroke’s view of epistemological retreat for the study of the post-revolutionary American hermit is indexed by the willingness of Amos Wilson, the early nineteenth-century Pennsylvania Hermit, to plagiarize Bolingbroke’s remarks verbatim in explaining his own rationale for withdrawing from society (19–20).

12. Originally published in 1729 in London, Lambert’s “Advice” appears in numerous American anthologies of British conduct literature (Newton, Learning 183). See, for example, The Ladies’ Pocket Library (1794), from which references are taken.

13. On the popularity of The Female Spectator in America, see Hayes 69.

14. Murray’s relevance to fables of female reclusion is further enhanced by the fact that her essay appears in the Massachusetts Magazine only months before Lavinia’s “The Hermitess” is published in the same serial (Slauter 220).

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