A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion

ISBN : 9780198811343

Fay Bound Alberti
320 Pages
135 x 216 mm
Pub date
Sep 2019
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  • The first book in English to specifically address the history of loneliness
  • Provides a rich and important contribution to the histories of emotion, the body, social history and medical history
  • Identifies loneliness as a radically new phenomenon, dating from around 1800 in the UK
  • Highlights the physical as well as mental meanings of loneliness, with implications for its treatment

Despite 21st-century fears of an 'epidemic' of loneliness, its history has been sorely neglected. A Biography of Loneliness offers a radically new interpretation of loneliness as an emotional language and experience. Using letters and diaries, philosophical tracts, political discussions, and medical literature from the eighteenth century to the present, historian of the emotions Fay Bound Alberti argues that loneliness is not an ahistorical, universal phenomenon. It is, in fact, a modern emotion: before 1800, its language did not exist. And where loneliness is identified, it is not always bad, but a complex emotional state that differs according to class, gender, ethnicity and experience.
Looking at informative case studies such as Sylvia Plath, Queen Victoria, and Virginia Woolf, A Biography of Loneliness charts the emergence of loneliness as a modern and embodied emotional state.


Preface: No (Wo)man is an island
Introduction: Loneliness as a 'modern epidemic'

1: When 'oneliness' became loneliness: the birth of a modern emotion
2: A 'disease of the blood'? The chronic loneliness of Sylvia Plath
3: Loneliness and lack: romantic love, from Wuthering Heights to Twilight
4: Widowhood and loss: from Thomas Turner to the Widow of Windsor
5: Instaglum? Social media and the making of online community
6: A 'ticking timebomb'? Rethinking loneliness in old age
7: Roofless and rootless: no place to call 'home'
8: Feeding the hunger. Materiality and the neglected lonely body
9: Lonely clouds and empty vessels. When loneliness is a gift
Conclusion: reframing loneliness in a neoliberal age
Further reading

About the author: 

Fay Bound Alberti is a Reader in History and UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at the University of York. She is a TED speaker and has published widely on medicine, the body, gender and emotion in books and scholarly articles as well as in the media. She has taught at universities around the UK including UCL, Lancaster, Manchester, and York.

"In addition to Alberti's sharp political analysis, one of the most powerful themes in her book is how varied loneliness is, how embedded it is in our lives, how extensively it evades generalisation. Maybe loneliness is a 21st-century epidemic, a modern illness requiring an urgent response, but its also so much more than that." - Sophie McBain, New Statesman

"Alberti conveys the ambivalence of loneliness as we now conceive of it, its mingling of horror and desirability in a machine age." - Jane O'Grady, Literary Review

"With wit and grace, Fay Bound Alberti traces the story of an often-painful emotion through its many guises and transformations. By showing that loneliness is not an existential universal but rather has causes and contexts, this book is itself a balm for anyone who has felt its stabs in the thick of crowded cities or amidst the chatter of social media." - Professor Barbara H. Rosenwein, Loyola University Chicago

"Beginning with the intriguing argument that loneliness is a modern emotional phenomenon, Fay Bound Alberti traces many facets and factors leading up to the current loneliness dilemma. The book contributes both to several facets in the history of emotion over the past two centuries, and to a humane understanding of the issues and possibilities involved today." - Dr Peter Stearns, George Mason University

"This fascinating book explores an increasingly central experience in our society-loneliness. Bound Alberti does a wonderful job of explaining where do all lonely people come from, and where do they all belong. The nuanced picture she draws has real potential to help us better understand, cope with, and reduce the most significant epidemic of our time. The author makes a particularly valuable distinction between fleeting and chronic loneliness. While fleeting loneliness can boost creativity and enhance emotional and spiritual clarity, chronic lonelinesswhich involves an existential sense of meaningless lackis devastatingly destructive. I highly recommend this important book for all readers." - Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, author of The Arc of Love

"Why is loneliness such a major concern in western societies? In this thoughtful, thought-provoking book Fay Bound Alberti traces modern loneliness from its nineteenth-century cultural and demographic origins to its latest incarnation as a health emergency, a scourge of western society. Exploring diverse experiences of loneliness - from William Wordsworths famous lonely as a cloud to Sylvia Plaths desperate description of it as a disease of the blood - Bound Alberti provides a compelling account of the causes and consequences of loneliness in an age when community solidarities are at a premium." - Barbara Taylor, Professor of Humanities at Queen Mary University of London; principal investigator on Wellcome Trust funded project, 'Pathologies of Solitude, 18th-21st Century'

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