The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Pleasure of Being Left Alone

The Pleasure of Being Left Alone

There is a form of being together that feels as easy and spacious as being alone, when your experience is not crowded out or eclipsed by the presence of the other but deepened and magnified. Such companionship is extremely rare and extremely precious. All other company, no matter how dear, inevitably reaches a saturation point and begins to suffocate. If one is an introvert, that point comes sooner and more violently. A return to solitude then becomes nothing less than a rapture.

Rose Macaulay (August 1, 1881–October 30, 1958) channels this ecstatic relief with great charm and poetic passion in a piece from Personal Pleasures: Essays on Enjoying Life (public library) — her 1935 collection of reflections kindred to, and a century ahead of, poet Ross Gay’s wonderful Book of Delights.

Rose Macaulay

Despite publishing twenty-two books in twenty years, alongside numerous essays, poems, and newspaper columns — prolificacy only possible through the deepest and most undistracted solitude, haunted by Susan Sontag’s lament that “one can never be alone enough to write” — Macaulay was no hermit. She gave talks, attended events, threw parties, and appeared frequently on public radio to offer incisive commentary on the state of the world. During WWI, she worked as a nurse and a civil servant. During WWII, like Marie Curie a war earlier, she became a volunteer ambulance driver at the age of sixty. She regularly wrote to the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary — her favorite book — with suggestions, corrections, and improvements. (“To amend so great a work gives me pleasure,” she writes in one of these essays on life’s littlest and deepest joys.) When her flat was demolished in the Blitz, all her books destroyed, it was the dictionary volumes she most mourned. When she rebuilt her home, she continued hosting friends for salons and soirees.

But despite her surface sociality, Macaulay embodied the true test of an introvert — not whether one engages in social activity, but whether one is charged or drained by it. In an essay titled “Departure of Visitors,” she exults in the pleasure of being at last left alone:

An exquisite peace obtains: a drowsy, golden peace, flowing honey-sweet over my dwelling, soaking it, dripping like music from the walls, strowing the floors like trodden herbs. A peace for gods; a divine emptiness.


The easy chair spreads wide arms of welcome; the sofa stretches, guest-free; the books gleam, brown and golden, buff and blue and maroon, from their shelves; they may strew the floor, the chairs, the couch, once more, lying ready to the hand… The echo of the foolish words lingers on the air, is brushed away, dies forgotten, the air closes behind it. A heavy volume is heaved from its shelf on to the sofa. Silence drops like falling blossoms over the recovered kingdom from which pretenders have taken their leave.

What to do with all this luscious peace? It is a gift, a miracle, a golden jewel, a fragment of some gracious heavenly order, dropped to earth like some incredible strayed star. One’s life to oneself again. Dear visitors, what largesse have you given, not only in departing, but in coming, that we might learn to prize your absence, wallow the more exquisitely in the leisure of your not-being.

Art by Dasha Tolstikova from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader

Paradoxically, even Macaulay’s muse was a visitor from whom she eventually needed a break. In another essay, she offers a strikingly similar inner response to finishing a book — that moment when, upon setting down the last word on the last page, the mind becomes uncrowded again. She writes:

Leisure spreads before my dazzled eyes, a halcyon sea, too soon to be cumbered with the flotsam and jetsam of purposes long neglected, which will, I know it, drift quickly into view again once I am embarked upon that treacherous, enticing ocean. Leisure now is but a brief business, and past return are the days when it seemed to stretch, blue and unencumbered, between one occupation and the next. There are always arrears, always things undone, doubtless never to be done, putting up teasing, reproachful heads, so that, although I slug, I slug among the wretched souls whom care doth seek to kill. But now, just emerged as I am from the tangled and laborious thicket which has so long embosked me, I will contemplate a sweet and unencumbered slugging, a leisure and a liberty as of lotus eaters or gods.

Couple with May Sarton’s stunning ode to the art of being alone from the era of Macaulay’s Personal Pleasures, then revisit Olivia Laing on the modern art of being alone amid the crowd and Stephen Batchelor’s field guide to glad solitude.

Published June 13, 2024




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