BECOMING A RECLUSE – THE PEOPLE WHO REJECTED SOCIETY
Posted January 4, 2016on:
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In the past few years there has been a growing interest in hermits, people who reject the company of others, and choose to live in seclusion. The pressures of modern life – where we seem to spend our entire existences trying to fit in with the demands of others -can sometimes make such a lifestyle seem enticing. I don’t include religious hermits in this piece, people who reject society to live closer to God, as they’re an entirely different kettle of fish. I mean people who have either been hurt and retreated from human company, or who simply wish to be by themselves, or even ones who just can’t stand the proximity of other people.
Our traditional image of the hermit is an old man with a beard living in a cave, or a windy hilltop somewhere, and there are cases where that has happened. I’ve seen it argued though that anyone choosing that lifestyle will automatically draw attention to themselves, and if you really wanted to be a recluse, then just simply live in a flat in a city, as no one will notice you then! Sadly, that is all too often true. In an extreme case, in Croatia, a woman’s corpse lay undiscovered in her bed for FORTY-ONE YEARS after she had died. So some people don’t choose the hermit lifestyle, they have it thrust upon them. One tragic example is that of 1950s B-movie actress Yvette Vickers, whose mummified body was found a year after her death in Los Angeles in 2011.
The tale of the hermit who retreats from society due to a loss in love is a perennial romantic favourite. A railway engineer called John Evans retreated to a cabin in the woods above Alderley Edge, Cheshire, after allegedly losing the love of his life on the Titanic, and suffering a nervous breakdown as a result. His doctor advised him to “live among the pines”. Mr Evans wasn’t completely anti-social. He often advised climbers in the area, and helped the police to locate missing people, although it was said he didn’t like the company of women. In 1935 he died in mysterious circumstances after swallowing potassium cyanide. The mystery is whether it was a genuine suicide, or an accident.
There are some people who have taken the whole hermit idea to an extreme. Tom Leppard, known as the Leopard Man, decided to become a hermit after enduring a brutal education in a convent, and a stint in the special forces military. Reasoning that people were the source of all his unhappiness, he took himself off to the Isle of Skye in 1987, after having had nearly all his body covered in a leopard spot tattoo! For 20 years Tom lived in a bothy, wearing little more than a fleece to cover his bare essentials. Every week he would kayak 3 miles to get his vital supplies. By the time he reached his early 70s though, the lifestyle was getting too much, and he had to move to a cottage, where the shop was within walking distance. He said he had no regrets about his wild, lonely existence, and that it had made him a bit of “a tourist attraction”.
My favourite hermit is William Cavendish-Scott, the 5th Duke of Portland. Born in 1800, he had been an MP in his younger days, and a Captain in the army, although it was said that he had always suffered from shyness, and felt awkward around women. At the age of 54 his father died and he succeeded to the title. On inheriting the ancestral seat of Welbeck Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, he decided to completely transform the place to his own needs. He stripped the rooms of their finery, and confined himself to the west wing, where he communicated with his valet via a letterbox system. In the meantime he was busy organising the transformation of the subterranean part of the Abbey.
The intriguing part about the Duke’s story is why did this man, who was painfully shy, and rejected society, go to all the trouble of converting the bottom part of his home into an enormous and palatial entertainment centre? He erected a huge underground ballroom, able to accommodate 2000 people, and an indoor riding school. Did he have a secret hankering to host lavish parties there, but was stymied by his acute shyness? In spite of his solitariness, he was seem as a good employer, and even became known as “the workmen’s friend”. He installed a skating rink, so that his staff could get regular exercise. The Duke didn’t take too kindly to anyone acknowledging his existence though. Any workman who politely touched his cap on unexpectedly meeting him, would be sacked. His tenants were told in no uncertain terms to pass him “as if he was a tree”.
The Duke would only take exercise himself at night, when he would go out for a walk after dark, whilst a maid walked a short distance ahead, carrying an lantern. Such antics inevitably led people to speculate that he had some awful deformity. The Duke died in 1879, aged 80. When his cousin inherited Welbeck, he arrived to find the place resembling a huge rubbish tip. The grounds were choked with weeds, the hallway had no floor, and the family treasures were piled up as if they were worthless. An enigma right to the end, the Duke had also inexplicably installed a lavatory in each room, right out on public gaze!
The American poet Emily Dickinson retreated from society because she felt that it couldn’t measure up to her vivid inner life. She seemed to form intense attachments to people, and probably they simply couldn’t measure up to her expectations of them. For the last 20 years of her life she communicated with people via a closed door, and lowered gifts to children from her window using a basket. It was an existence similar to that of the celebrated French author, Marcel Proust, who spent the last 17 years of his life in a soundproofed Parisian apartment. He slept during the day and worked by night. Somewhat inevitably he was described as looking very pale.
Tycoon, aviator and compulsive womaniser Howard Hughes has to have been one of the most eccentric men of the 20th century. He had always been prone to little neuroses, such as OCD behaviour (as portrayed by Leonardo di Caprio in the film The Aviator), and extreme distrust. He once insisted on holding a meeting in a closed car in the middle of the baking desert, because he was paranoid about being overheard. For the last 10 years of his life he retreated completely from public view, living in penthouse apartments. He would lie in bed, naked apart from a napkin covering his private parts, living off ice-cream, and watching the same film – Ice Station Zebra – over and over again.
Another film Hughes had a fixation with was The Conqueror, where a horrendously miscast John Wayne played Genghis Khan. Hughes had been a producer on the film, made in 1956, which has become notorious for having been filmed in the Nevada desert, close to a nuclear testing site, and (allegedly) thought to be the cause of the deaths by cancer of several involved with it. Hughes withdrew the film from public release, but would watch it over and over again in his room, whilst ordering the projectionist to remain blindfolded throughout.
By the time of his death in 1976, Howard Hughes was physically emaciated, with long hair and fingernails. It was a far cry from the dashing young man of decades before.
Some people retreat from public view simply because they just don’t seem to like anybody … and nobody seems to like them. Racehorse trainer Dorothy Paget must have been a difficult woman, to say the least. She hated men, and said that the sight of them made her feel sick. Like Proust she slept during the day, and worked at night, which must have been a sore trial for her bookmakers, who were expected to receive her phone calls at all hours. She told her gardener that he could only mow the lawn at night, even though he protested he wouldn’t be able to see what he was doing!
Born into the aristocracy in 1905, Dorothy wasn’t blessed with good looks. Her photo’s show a hulking, rather fierce-looking woman, usually with a cigarette clamped in her mouth. She became obese, and in spite of her huge wealth, would turn up at race-tracks in an old tweed coat. Trainer magazine described her as “a bad-tempered lump of a woman”. She hated people to such an extent that she would book the seat next to her in the theatre, so that her handbag could occupy it, and when travelling would insist on a compartment all to herself. In restaurants she would reserve the surrounding tables. Even during World War 2 she complained to the Government that she would still need her own train compartment, as if a man sat next to her she would probably “vomit”. Not surprisingly the Government had rather more pressing concerns to deal with, and Dorothy was ignored.
Any sympathy we might have for Dorothy though is tested when you hear about her appalling arrogance and rudeness. She voted Conservative, because she said she said she didn’t want to be ruled by the working classes. She would bawl out her trainers through a closed door, and refused to call her staff by their names, giving them colour codes instead. Ah but at least she cared for her horses, you might argue. Well even with them she put her own needs first. At the end of a day’s racing, a horse wouldn’t be allow to return to it’s box until Dorothy had had a pee in it!
It’s rare to find anyone about whom no one can recall anything fondly at all, but Dorothy seems to have fitted that bill. With Dorothy perhaps her anti-social behaviour can be put down to the fact that she had been a spoiled child, who never expected anyone to like her. Unfortunately, her scowling face, selfish behaviour, and rudeness pretty much ensued that no one did. It would take someone little short of a saint to tolerate Dorothy.
Perhaps vast wealth, like that “enjoyed” (I use that word reservedly) by Dorothy Paget and Howard Hughes, enabled them to become as anti-social as they wished. If some of us could afford to book an extra seat in the theatre or on the train, and not have to put up with people being annoying in close proximity we might. I once heard of a bestselling American author who, when travelling, would book all hotel rooms nearby so that she wouldn’t be disturbed by anyone. Personally I find it easier to simply take my MP3 player with me to drown them out.
Sometimes when people drive me mad I can quite see why people go to extreme measures to avoid others, and there is no doubt that a few hours to yourself can be as much of a tonic as a holiday. For a writer, it’s practically a necessity. The much-loved actor Kenneth Williams (who also was a bit of a solitary) once confided in his diary that he often liked to fool himself that he was a hermit, but the truth was that “it’s not true, I like people”.
In the 18th century Charles Hamilton, of Painshill Park, decided that a hermit would be the making of his country estate. Nothing could complete the garden better than some bearded old man, living in a grotto. Someone applied for the job … and was sacked after 3 weeks, when he was found frequenting the local pub. Perhaps, like Mr Williams, he found he liked people too (and beer).