When I saw a book entitled A History of Loneliness I immediately had to buy it – imagining the way social interaction had changed over time might be revealed to me. It was, of course, Irish author John Boyne’s novel, a sensitive and compelling exploration of Irish priesthood that enlarged my understanding.
I have thought about loneliness most often in relation to the history of early women doctors. The Alexander Turnbull Library holds a wonderful collection of letters of women who trained in medicine in Edinburgh in the 1890s. The letters were carefully preserved by Dr Agnes Bennett who practiced in Wellington from 1905 until 1936, with interruption for distinguished service in the first world war. Those letters led me to write about the ‘corresponding community’ the women created in order to continue the companionship they had so enjoyed at the Edinburgh Medical College for Women. The letters enabled them to maintain the sorority they had established as they embarked on their often lonely careers. Early women doctors were often exiles from the communities in which they were raised and from those in which they ended up practicing. Their male colleagues rarely welcomed them and as single women they were treated by suspicion by the wives of male colleagues.