In 1888 the British essayist, novelist and poet Amy Levy wrote an article on the subject of “Women and Club Life” for The Woman’s World, a progressive periodical that was described by its editor, Oscar Wilde, as “the first social magazine for women.” In the course of her argument, as she surveyed the different cultural pursuits then available to the men and women of London, Levy remarked that “The female club-lounger, the flâneuse of St James Street, latch-key in pocket and and eye-glasses on the nose, remains a creature of the imagination.”
For Levy, the flâneur – the figure who stalks the boulevards and haunts the arcades of 19th-century Paris, who loses himself in the crowd but stands apart from it, whose excursions are characterised by fleeting encounters, by detached observations, by the cultivated absence of involvement – has no female counterpart.
In her engaging, inspiring and vigorous new book Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin wants to challenge this view. “Surely”, she writes, “there have always been plenty of women in cities, and plenty of women writing about cities, chronicling their lives, telling stories, taking pictures, making films, engaging with the city in any way they can… The joy of walking in the city belongs to men and women alike. To suggest that there couldn’t be a female version of the flâneur is to limit the ways women have interacted with the city to the ways men have interacted with the city.”
Her project, then, might be best understood as an exercise in conceptual dilation and revision. Although our histories of the flâneur have hitherto been defined by men, most notably in form of the phenomenon’s most influential practitioners and theorists, Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, we cannot, when reconstructing the ambulatory history of our cities, “rule out the fact that women were there; we must try to understand what walking in the city meant to them. Perhaps the answer is not to attempt to make a woman fit a masculine concept, but to redefine the concept itself.”
In pursuing this objective, Elkin argues that we need to remember that 19th-century instances of female wandering were often subjected to calumny: women walkers were assumed to be street walkers, prostitutes, the subject of the male gaze rather than the makers of their own observations. And this distortion is present in more recent attempts to understand our interactions with the city. Whether we are talking about the psychogeography practised by the Situationists and recently reinvigorated by Will Self, or of the “deep topography” of the architectural critic Iain Nairn, a view has been allowed to form that roaming and ruminating on the streets of a city is an activity that can only be undertaken by a man.
The women who populate Elkin’s streets are many and various. In London’s Bloomsbury we meet Virginia Woolf, who in her 1927 essay, Street-Haunting, described the flâneur as a “central oyster of perceptiveness”. In Paris we meet Jean Rhys weaving in and out of the cafes of the Left Bank; George Sand flying from one end of the city to the other in “iron-clod heels” and a suit she had made for herself out of “heavy grey cloth” (“No one knew me, no one looked at me, no one found fault with me”, she writes. “I was an atom lost in that immense crowd.”); Agnes Varda moving in the shadows of the city dwellers who would become her subjects. In Venice we meet the photographer and artist Sophie Calle, following the canals in pursuit of a romantic obsession.
And in all of these cities and more, we meet Elkin herself as she wanders, reflects, studies, grows. This autobiographical counterpoint to the cultural and social elements of the book allows her to imbue her narrative with many fascinating reflections on the nature of contemporary city life, and on the differences that are to be found in walking your way through the streets of a variety of cultures.
As Elkin says of Japan: “To flâneuse in Tokyo I had to walk up staircases, take elevators, climb ladders, to find what I was looking for upstairs, or on rooftops. You can’t just walk through the city waiting for beauty to appear. This isn’t Paris.”
This strand of the book also affords Elkin the opportunity to reflect at the start of her narrative on the nature of her upbringing in the American suburbs of Long Island. Her analysis of this discreet, anti-metropolitan landscape is particularly acute, and, although the motivations she ascribes to those who do not want to live in a city can be a little severe, lends Flâneuse a sense of dialectical edge and intellectual rigour.
Elkin is not the first to question the nature of the place of women in the lives of our cities – one thinks, for example, of Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust. But the persuasiveness with which she urges us to rethink and expand our understanding of the art of flânerie, together with the force of her insights and the strength and weight of her voice, leaves us with a contribution to the field that feels singular. Buy it, read it, talk about it. And carry it with you in your mind when you next go walking in the city.
Matthew Adams lives in London and writes for the TLS, The Spectator and the Literary Review.
Source: art & life