Great Things From Isolation

I do hope everyone is well. Here is a feature on some great things that have happened in isolation, which was originally published in Spectator Life.

When Shakespeare was in quarantine as the plague swept through London, many academics believe he used the time to write King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra. Sir Isaac Newton went into isolation after being sent down from Cambridge University and made some of his greatest discoveries including gravity. News has it that the Game of Thrones writer George R. R. Martin will use his time in self-isolation amid the Coronavirus outbreak to finish his sixth novel. Time in isolation can lead to great things.

Van Gogh was admitted to Saint Paul Hospital (or the ‘House of Health’) in May 1889 after he cut off his ear. His brother, Theo, thought Vincent was unable to live alone so he made arrangements for him to live at the institution in Provence. In his book ‘Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum’, Martin Bailey explains that when Vincent arrived, he was fortunate enough to be able to take over two rooms: he slept in one and used the other as his studio. In a letter to Theo, Vincent said, “There are more than 30 empty rooms – I have another in which to work.” A few months after that, in a letter to his mother Anna, he said: “I work almost without stopping from morning till night, day after day, and I lock myself up in the studio to have no distractions.” 

He remained at Saint Paul for a year. Away from external influences, he was free to make bold artistic decisions with his art. He painted some of his best work in isolation, including ‘The Starry Night.’ In a letter, he told his brother about his inspiration, “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.” His painting ‘Wheatfield with Cypresses’ depicts the view from his room. He also painted his ‘Irises’ and many other works. He completed sketches, too, of his bedroom, complete with bars across the window. Many of these sketches are on display in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Interestingly, he painted only one picture of the asylum itself – ‘View of the Asylum and Chapel,’ perhaps demonstrating how little time he spent out of the place itself. 

Another artist who used his time in isolation productively was Michelangelo. After he supported a revolt against the Medici, his patrons, Michelangelo was forced to go into hiding. For two months, he lived in a small cell and took to drawing on the walls with charcoal and chalk to relieve his boredom. The space was found by chance in 1975 when custodians found a trap door in a room under the Medici Chapels in Florence. 

And then there’s the great story surrounding the genesis of ‘Frankenstein’. Mary Shelley began writing the book for a ghost story competition. The world was in lockdown during the summer of 1816 because of the ‘Volcanic Winter’ caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora the year before. Byron suggested that they should quench their boredom by writing stories. ‘Frankenstein’ was one of two fantastic stories to emerge from these shut-up conditions. The other was Doctor John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ which went on to influence Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. 

Byron had already found himself in quarantine for eighteen days in Lazaretto in 1811 on his return from Greece. Peter Vassallo explains that this had a ‘depressing effect on [Byron’s] volatile temperament.’ Byron recorded his morose thoughts in a diary. “Neither maid nor youth delights me now.” He contemplated his existence and hoped, in an alternative life, “to have two if not four legs.” John Henry Newman in 1832 found himself similarly confined on board a boat because of a cholera outbreak and used the time to write three Petrarchan Sonnets. After that, in 1844, while William Makepeace Thackeray was on the steamship Iberia, he and other passengers had to spend seventeen days at the Fort Manoel in quarantine after visiting Gibraltar and Malta. He was upset to hear that one of his fellow passengers had died. So, to distract himself, he wrote the last chapters of his novel, ‘Barry Lyndon’. 

It is believed that composer Guillaume de Machaut wrote ‘Messe de Nostre Dame’ while he took measures to avoid society during the Bubonic Plague. The medieval scoresheet is the earliest complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass. 

When Stravinsky contracted typhoid, he took to a nursing home to recover. He had a contract with the Free Theatre to write an opera and was in touch with Konstantin Aleksandrovich Mardzhanov, the director of the theatre, about his illness. He had to confess that he was not going to be able to meet his September 1913 deadline. Mardzhanov said in a note: “Do not worry about work. Do it when well.” But Stravinsky worked and managed to write ‘The Nightingale’ in his confinement. He finished it the following year while his wife was unwell and isolated with tuberculosis in Leysin in the Alps and he took residence nearby.

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