Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
The English word ‘solitude’ derives from the Latin sōlitūdo (solitariness, loneliness, destitution), which itself derives from sōlus, alone. The word's first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Chaucer's poem ‘The Complaint of Mars’ (c. 1374), but it has only been in common use in English from the late sixteenth century, with the rise of modern ideas of the self and private life.
A common motive or explanation for travel from the early-modern era onwards was the pursuit of solitude. Until around the end of the nineteenth century, only men of a certain class could be solitary travellers, the lower classes having neither the time nor resources for such leisured travel, and travelling women being likely to be chaperoned. In the Romantic era, travel became associated with solitary encounters with nature and the sublime, and texts such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782) made the link between solitary walking and creative thinking. As Patrick Parrinder (2006, 242) argues, when it spread through the British empire, English solitariness and reserve also became an expression of ‘the governing mystique of an imperial elite’ in the face of a native population seen as voluble, herdlike and brazen-faced.
All these myths of the solitary traveller find expression in Alexander Kinglake's classic travel book, Eothen: Or Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East (1844), which narrates his journey, in 1834 at the age of 25, through the Middle East. The most difficult part of his journey was crossing the Sinai Desert, and it was Kinglake's desire to be alone in this fabled place of silence, solitude and retreat that drove him. (The Latin sōlitūdo, as the classicist Kinglake would certainly have known, also means desert.) ‘Often enough’, he wrote, ‘the wandering Englishman is guilty, (if guilt it be,) of some pride, or ambition, big or small, imperial, or parochial, which being offended has made the lone place more tolerable than ball rooms to him’ (264).
One of Eothen's semi-comic (and racist) conceits is that Kinglake's desire for solitude is constantly thwarted by the excitable natives. If you adopt the Arab life in search of solitude you will be thwarted, he warns his readers, for you will be ‘in perpetual contact with a mass of hot fellow-creatures’ (250).