Solitude standing

From medieval anchoresses to poets, singers, and writers throughout the ages, seclusion is often seen as a particularly female act. But a closer look reveals a more nuanced history, which speaks to society’s romantic fixation on the lone woman. 
'Mother Julian', illustrated by Stephen Reid.
'Mother Julian', illustrated by Stephen Reid. Credit: Print Collector via Getty Images
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The best singer-songwriter in the world has only ever released one album – and you are unlikely to have heard of it, or even of her.

Indeed, ‘released’ is not quite an accurate term: Sibylle Baier’s son made a CD of her homemade reel-to-tape recordings from the 1970s in 2006. Intended as a gift for family and friends, it unintentionally made Baier a folk sensation.

Colour Green is named after one of the songs on the fourteen-track LP. Over the course of the album, Baier deftly moves from romantic dependence (‘he listened to my tears till dawn’), to depression and heartbreak (‘my strong and strange moods’), to new love and motherhood: ‘That’s how to live and laugh and feel better / I cut the bread for them and they run /My daughter my son one by one’.

To say that Baier is a lyrical genius is an understatement; her quiet, breathy voice conveys a distinct emotional intensity and a multitude of narrative possibilities. This is not the hackneyed folk music of covers of traditional songs, but an altogether darker, deeper, and more all-consuming genre.

Baier’s cult-favourite status is made all the more dramatic by the story of her accidental fame: she decided not to pursue a musical career, and instead to focus on her family. She appears in articles entitled ‘Lost women found’, and is described as an antidote to ‘narcissism, ambition and celebrity’. In short, she has become all the more famous precisely because she decided to shun celebrity.

And Baier’s spurning of fame, career, and success is a particularly female act: she dedicated herself to her children, and it is only through her son Robby that her music has had any contact with the outside world. Robby Baier still manages her website, which he proclaims she ‘will most likely never see’.

What is it about female artists, singers, and writers that makes their reclusive nature so attractive to fans? From Emily Dickinson to Harper Lee, it is impossible to move for stories of seclusion, isolation, and reluctance to interact with the outside world.

In medieval England, female anchorites – ‘anchoresses’ – were bricked into small cells in the centre of cities. They had no means of getting out of their small space, and had three windows: one by which a female servant could bring them food and remove their waste, one by which they could see the church the cell was attached to, and one which opened onto the outside world. But far from their seclusion rendering them ignored and forgotten, it inspired attention. In the Book of Margery Kempe – the tale of fifteenth-century religious mystic Margery Kempe’s wanderings and pilgrimages – she describes going to visit the anchoress Julian of Norwich. Margery trusts Julian: she asks her if her recent revelations and images have any ‘deception in them.’ Julian’s isolation has made her a religious authority for Margery; there is some distinct power in her seclusion.

It would be facetious to draw a direct link between Julian of Norwich and Sibylle Baier, but it is undeniable that the image of a female artist or writer completely separate from the world has been compelling throughout history. These women are, in some way, a manifestation of the ‘hortus conclusus’ philosophy found in the Vulgate’s Song of Solomon: ‘hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus’ (‘a garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up’). This idea of inviolable enclosed purity is commonly tied to the Virgin Mary and her immaculate conception. Baier’s willing isolation is a symbol of the ultimate divine femininity; the quiet woman whose purity is unassailable.

With this in mind, it is interesting to consider another prominent female recluse. Stories of Emily Dickinson’s seclusion abound: Time calls her a ‘textbook recluse’ and cites her unwillingness to leave her family property, whilst others draw attention to her reluctance to make and accept visits. Rather than being seen as the ultimate, pure figure, Dickinson’s seclusion is positioned at odds with the requirements of a nineteenth-century American woman.

But Dickinson might not have been as much of a recluse as critics and press would have us believe. She engaged in an extensive correspondence, and declared memorably in a letter to Samuel Bowles in 1858 that ‘My friends are my ‘estate.’ Forgive me then the avarice to hoard them.’ The intensity of Dickinson’s relationships is at odds with an understanding of a complete social recluse: she wrote passionate love letters to her brother’s wife Susan Gilbert, and shared her poetry with her and others.

Whilst much is often made of the fact that hundreds of Dickinson’s poems were ‘unpublished’ until after her death, such an argument rather fundamentally misunderstands her literary dissemination. In sharing her work with friends, fellow writers, and those she esteemed as critics, she has more in common with the sixteenth and seventeenth century traditions of elite manuscript circulation than she does with absolute unpublished isolation.

But to the extent they are or were recluses, Baier and Dickinson retreated from the world for different reasons: Baier to dedicate herself to her home life rather than her art, and Dickinson to dedicate herself to her art rather than the expectations of being a woman in a community.

And yet, despite this difference, the fact that their isolation often preoccupies critics and fans reveals there is still a romantic fixation on the creative woman set apart from the rest of the world. From the mad woman in the attic, to the damsel in her ivory tower, or the poet in her walled garden – the enclosed spectre of the anchoress is never far away. 

Francesca Peacock

Francesca Peacock is a member of the Engelsberg Ideas editorial team.

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