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A Pelican in the Wilderness: Hermits, Solitaries and Recluses Hardcover – 18 Feb 2002

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; 1st Edition edition (18 Feb. 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0002571420
  • ISBN-13: 978-0002571425
  • Product Dimensions: 21.8 x 14 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 675,299 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"...a durable examination of that great and continuing human urge to set oneself apart in order to get to the heart of things" -- Financial Times

"a vivid patchwork of visionary lives" -- The Times

From the Back Cover

In A Pelican in the Wilderness, Isabel Colegate casts through time and place to uncover tales of human solitude.

The quest for solitude – whether for social, religious, personal or intellectual reasons – dates back to ancient times. As a spiritual phenomenon it has its roots in Chinese, Hindu and Western philosophies; from the mystical Desert Fathers – the most famous of which was St Jerome – who cast themselves out into deserts and wastelands in search of spiritual revelation, to the Celts on Iona and Lindisfarne (who arrived with only onions to live on). Rousseau found solitaries inspirational, (but declared that he would die of boredom if he had to become a hermit himself, a view possibly shared by St Jerome who only managed to stay in the desert for two years.)

Hermits and hermitages even used to be a feature of rural and urban England. Sir John Soane had a hermit's cell installed in his house in Lincolns' Inn. At Hawkstone in Shropshire in the 1780s it was reported that a live hermit was seen gazing at a human skull. And in the eighteenth-century it was seen as highly fashionable to place a hermitage in landscaped gardens; an advert would then be placed for a hermit, specifying particular requirements such as a promise not to cut hair, nails or beard. In return the hermit would receive food and a small gratuity. One hermit in Painshill, Surrey was sacked for drinking beer in the village inn.

But of course, recluses, solitaries, hermits, anchoresses (female solitaries) and 'loners' continue to exist to this day, quietly opting to live outside society or living in complete seclusion in wildernesses. Isabel Colegate examines their lives, motivations, self-reflections, writings and the thoughts of present-day urban and rural hermits.

Those who love Colegate's fiction will find all of its virtues here: historical imagination, quicksilver characterization, understated wit, and an eye for the bizarre matched by a power to evoke the sublime.

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Chinese hermits seem always to have been the most elusive. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 9 April 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is an entertaining and enjoyable series of descriptions -almost anecdotes - about hermits across the ages. My favourites are the stylites (who live on pillars) and dendrites (who live in trees). It also contains discursions on the role of hermits in religion, and the nature of the contemplative life. All in all, a learned and most entertaining read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Mrs. E. Mann on 27 Mar. 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I had read about one of the characters in this book while reading a magazine and decided to look on Amazon(I can always find what I want on here!) and found this book. The stories are amazing and intriguing, a good book if you like the unusual.
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By stephanie rudd on 4 Feb. 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A great little book. Lovely to read of those experiencing the solitary life in the here and now.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 14 reviews
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
An Antidote for the Modern Mass Mind 16 Sept. 2003
By OAKSHAMAN - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
It is nice to occasionally find a book that resonates at the same frequency as one's own soul. In my case, it was this perceptive and extremely well written study of hermits, solitaries, and recluses. It is not often in our modern world that the possibility, and legitimacy, of a solitary existance is examined in a sympathetic manner.
I do not think that I've seen a more comprehensive study of the phenomenon of the solitary lifestyle (Chinese and Tibetan hermits, the desert fathers, medieval anchorites, monastic and hermit religious orders, wandering holy men from Ireland to Russia, shamans, the pastoral posers of the 18th century, American mountain men, the New England transidentalists, eccentric noblemen, classical Stoics, Romantic poets, conservationists- even Howard Hughs!)
Clearly, this is a topic that resonates with the author too, but then as a writer that would seem only natural (i.e., she is a member of what has traditionally been considered the solitary profession.) She clearly understands the various motivations that come to drive individuals to a solitary existance, both voluntarily and involuntarily (love of nature, inspiration, world weariness, high sensitivity, preservation of the poetic ego, scopophobia, religious dedication, and the desire to find union with the Divine itself....)
28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
Hermits Of All Kinds, Of All Times 5 Mar. 2002
By Rob Hardy - Published on
Format: Hardcover
We don't think much of loners; it is a word of suspicion. Loners are
those racist militia men or pedophiles. We are social creatures
and we have intimate relationships with a few, friendships with
many, and interactions with a legion. And yet there have been
solitary souls throughout history who are odd but not malevolent,
and it is easy to sympathize with them. "The idea of the hermit's
life - simplicity, devotion, closeness to nature - lurks somewhere
on the periphery of most people's consciousness, a way glimpsed,
oddly familiar, not taken." So writes Isabel Colgate in _A Pelican
in the Wilderness: Hermits, Solitaries, and
Recluses_ (Counterpoint). As the subtitle shows, there are many
variations on the means and reasons by which people take themselves
away to themselves, and Colgate has provided a widely inclusive
discussion of the phenomenon.
Colgate is a novelist, and her ability
to write with sympathy about these loners makes her cheerful book a
delight to read. One instance after another of individual oddity
spills from her pages. Gilbert White, the famous
clergyman-naturalist of Selborne in Kent, built a thatched
hermitage and installed his brother there as a hermit, at least for
picnics. If the owner had enough money not only for a hermitage
but also for a hermit, he could hire one. In the eighteenth
century, Charles Hamilton hired a hermit, specified how he would
dress, how he must not cut his hair or nails, and how he must never
speak. The hermit would have been paid 700 guineas for a seven
year hitch, but lasted only three weeks before sneaking off to
the local pub. Mrs. Pobjoy was Beau Nash's last mistress in Bath,
and after his death in 1761 she moved into a hollow trunk and
stayed there until she died, perhaps from poverty and perhaps from
a broken heart. A contemporary "dendrite" was Julia Butterfly
Hill, who climbed a redwood in California in 1997 to save the tree
from a logging company. She stayed up it for two years, enduring
bad weather, hassles from security guards, and legal battles, but
the logging company eventually admitted defeat. Hermits
seek privacy, but often do something useful to make their living,
like tending herbal gardens, keeping bees, and (in the case of a
contemporary hermit Colgate interviews) painting heraldic
The span of Colgate's research is delightful. She covers
celebrity solitaries, like J. D. Salinger, Howard Hughes, and
Thoreau. Notables like Andrew Jackson, Louis XIV, Peter the Great,
and the Spanish emperor Charles V built grand buildings called
hermitages, and removed themselves there without austerity. Enkidu
was a kind of hermit before befriended by Gilgamesh. There was a
hermit pope in the middle ages, or rather Peitro de Maroni was
thought to be such a holy hermit that he was made pope, and was so
miserable that he lasted at the post only four years before he
was allowed to retire and resume isolation. The Catalan architect
Antonio Gaudi lived as a hermit in the last fifteen years of his
life beneath the unfinished spires of his great church of Santa
Sagrada in Barcelona; when he was run over by a tram, everyone
thought he was just an old tramp and there was no rush to get him
to a hospital, so he died. Colgate smiles at these oddballs, and
sympathizes, and because she cannot resist a good story,
has crammed her book with wonderful small portraits and revealing
anecdotes. It is a very enjoyable, rather disorganized, ramble
among those who for religion or politics or neurosis or simplicity
took themselves away, and yet are always with us.
15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Stories About Stories About Loners 15 Dec. 2002
By doomsdayer520 - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is an example of a book with interesting subject matter, which just doesn't work out in terms of readability. Colegate is a fiction writer otherwise, and her writing style does not jive well with a topic that requires research and independent insight. Here we have what is essentially a scrapbook of vignettes about hermits, recluses, and a few misanthropes throughout history who decided to live the solitary life. The problem is that the book is merely a repetitive listing of stories, usually covered in a few pages, distilled from other books in which an entire volume is given over to those persons. See the bibliography for proof. This list-like method is also evident in the way Colegate has fallen for the predictable legends of Thoreau as a secluded loner on Walden Pond (chapter 13). Of course Thoreau's writings on naturalist ethics deserve to be classics, but Colegate misses this point as she describes Thoreau as a hardcore hermit in a vast wilderness. Everybody knows that Thoreau was actually within short walking distance of a town and often went to his mother's house for food and shelter, and was hardly a wildman roughing it on his own.
Colegate's writing style is also pure British, in that rambling, non-committal, and vaguely chauvinistic way. Colegate covers many interesting regions of the world in this book, but that creeping British condescension seeps through. For example, in chapter 2 she gives a predictable save-the-rainforest argument to people in Thailand who are forced to rely on firewood for fuel, and apparently need this Western person to teach them about forest ecology. Ultimately, this book is just a listing of untroubled loners, who are interesting in themselves, but are compiled into a boring book that has no insights or researched conclusions about humanity's need for solitude in itself.
12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Wandering Pelican 9 May 2002
By Solitary08 - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The author roves over many examples of solitary life, touching all too briefly on variants from the isolated spiritual hermit to the modern eccentric recluse. There is little evidence of in depth study of the life, rather a broadsheet offering glimpses on anyone who seems to have sought to live apart, for whatever reason.
If you are searching for a better understanding of what the solitary or silent life is, look elsewhere.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Compiles much but skims too much 22 May 2006
By John L Murphy - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I read this book in an evening, although when I began it, I thought it'd take much longer--the author renders this compendium of solitary themes in careful, if a bit fussy, prose. It took me less time than I'd expected due to the uneven coverage of topics. In three hundred pages, you get Flaubert, Thoreau, and Madame Blavatsky along with St. Simon Stylite, Charles de Foucauld, and Cannibal Joe the mountain man. Every hermit save the Unabomber seems to make an appearance here. This does make for an informative overview, but with so much material that must support the intended focus upon the attractions and the dangers of "I want to be alone," the ultimate result is more a curio than a well-crafted work itself.

The anglocentric nature of the author--there are those of us not knowing off-hand where Godalming is, who would've appreciated some context--does mean that this book would have appeal most of all to those who can visit, or who have seen, the haunts of the 18c gentry who briefly indulged in a DIY hermitage building craze. But so many promising trails peter out: Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy" surely must have had specific points about hermits, but Colegate brings the book up only in a cursory fashion in one paragraph, with no references. She notices it, nods, and rushes on to the next sub-topic in her chapter. Another example: her summation of Charles De Foucauld's life, as with Isabella Eberhardt, whets one's appetite for more details on how these fascinating 19c French travellers in North Africa used their hermit tendencies as a retreat, a magnet, an energy source to fuel their respective adventures in religious and secular predicaments. But Colegate provides a well-told, but generalized biographical account of De Foucauld and Eberhardt that barely acknowledges the role that solitary retreats played in these two memorable lives. So much effort expended on condensing their lives into a few paragraphs, and so little then spent on showing how their hermit tendencies could be reconciled with or cap or play against the rest of their careers.

This pace, preceded by those chapter previews that so many books used to have, is brisk. Her own estate's restored hermitage from a couple hundred years back inspired her investigation, but she should have taken her time and expanded the book rather than condensed so much relevant material so that it was crowded out by the dozens of pages full of asides and background--interesting additions, sure, but not germane to the subject that needed more authorial attention and editorial control.

The endnotes glance at a shelf full of works she studied, but they too are rather lackadaisical, and give only author, title, and year published with no detailed page references or citations credited. She has done much reading on the topic and apparently some travelling, but, as with her off-hand remark about a postcard image from the Italian monastic hermitage of Camaldoli, you only realize too late that Colegate seems to have visited the place. You then wonder: why didn't she slow down and show us what she saw if indeed she had taken the trouble to go to that historic Italian forest? Instead, it's a few pages that could have come out of a guidebook or encyclopedia, not the personal observations that this book needed to integrate rather than scatter over such promising, but roughly furrowed, terrain as this subject of solitaries deserves.
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