A 1920 conversation between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield serves as a springboard for our own “talk about solitude,” an exploration of female modernists’ ambivalent approach to the experience and expression of solitude. This suggestive encounter predates and informs Woolf’s relationship with another important, but often neglected, author, Vita Sackville-West. These writers were each keenly attuned to the value of solitude as an aid to creativity, independence, self-reflection, and personal growth, finding solace in the natural world. Nevertheless, they also meditated on the problem of existential loneliness, seeking new, meaningful modes of intimacy with the human and non-human world.
Comparing the biographical and literary writing of these three key modernists, this paper suggests that – paradoxically – solitude is the hallmark of a widespread community of feeling. Diaries and epistolary exchanges indicate that solitude was both the ground and the limit of these uneasy but mutually enrichening sisterhoods, so often complicated by rivalry, misunderstandings, and absences. It played a part in how they staged their identities, how they perceived one another, and how they were portrayed in posterity. It serves as the emotional centre of much of their fictions, illuminating a shared imagistic vocabulary. It raises questions about performativity, language, and genre. Most importantly, the feeling of solitude stimulated poignant conversations about how we might connect with others and with the world.
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