Colegate, Isabel. A Pelican in the Wilderness: Hermits and Solitaries. London: HarperCollins; Washington, DC: Counterpoint Press, 2002. Paperback edition (2003) has subtitle: Hermits, Solitaries and Recluses.
Polite reviewers of this book forewarn readers to browse a page or two at a time. Some tell us that the author's style is telegraphic and impressionistic, others that the book is a times a travelogue, at times a series of vignettes.
In short, the book is riddled with difficulties. There is no clear object to the study: hermits, recluses, and solitaries are lumped together without distinction. Forced solitude, mental illness, eccentricity, and spirituality are seen all of one piece. The reader stumbles through a menagerie of amateur poets, misanthropes, romantic aristocrats (all British, as is the author), and ornamental hermits. They get the same attention as Christian desert hermits, female anchorites, and Eastern sages.
All of this is unfortunate coming so soon after Peter France's Hermits: The Insights of Solitude. A follow-up book could have extended the biographical offerings or pursued the psychology of solitude. Instead, the author has forced voluminous notes -- one imagines scores of index cards -- into a makeshift succession of 250+ pages. About 125 cards? The ten-page index reveals only one page mention for most of its entries. There are no footnotes within the chapters, just a bibliography of books consulted or of potential interest to readers.
Titles are unenlightening about chapter contents, being quotations. We might guess that "Chapter 1: Going too see the hermit, finding him gone ..." is about Asia because we recognize the Chinese poem, but it may not be familiar to everyone. The subtitle is a list of subjects: "Lao-tse, Boddhidharma, the Changsan mountains, Tibetan hermits, Madame Blavatsky, a Kipling story, Swami Abhishiktananda." Just some of the motley cast in nineteen pages, a pastiche that goes on for sixteen chapters.
The reader has to guess contents from chapter headings like "Cedar and pine, and fur, and branching palm," and "I could be bounded in a nutshell. ..." The latter passage, for example, is from Shakespeare's Hamlet, so we can guess that the chapter has something to do with Shakespeare and his time. But here is the subtitle: "Mystics and Hermitages: Richard Rolle, The Cloud of Unknowing, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, Shakespeare and Catholicism, the Emperor Charles V, Gaudi, the hermitage of Montserrat, Philip Thicknesse, Mrs. Pobjoy." Whew!
For all that -- and for what it is worth -- one does learn entertaining bits of information about obscure and irrelevant personalities. In this chapter, for example, Montserrat, the famous Catalan monastery, is lumped in, it seems, because an 18th-century English eccentric aristocrat, named Philip Thicknesse, in tow with "his third wife, their two children, a dog, a parakeet, and a monkey," went to Montserrat to buy a hermitage. His demand failing, he returned home to build one on his grounds. Thus the quoted description of Montserrat by the contemporary Dom Louis Montegut is just scene-setting for the Thicknesse anecdote (all of two paragraphs), followed by one paragraph about Mrs. Pobjoy, "the great Beau Nash's last mistress," who lived her despondent last years in a hollow tree." We never find out anything about Montserrat spirituality or the hermits who lived there.
We may want to pursue a few bibliographical leads suggested by the book, but most are neither original nor relevant. In the end, we hear only Colegate's voice of condescension, rye amusement, occasional empathy. The voices of the "hermits, solitaries, and recluses" are never made very audible.