In Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London Lauren Elkin attempts to broaden the gendered definitions of the ‘flâneur’, interweaving cultural and personal history into an academic memoir.
The flâneur, or ‘dandy’, was the idle wanderer of Paris’s moneyed middle class, who both stands out and conceals himself in the new urban crowd forming in the nineteenth century.
For philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin, the flâneur was a perfect caricature of the attitudes of the era, and the first example of the modern consumer. Along with Haussmann arcades and world exhibitions, he was a premonition for the commodity culture that was so engrained in both the interwar era in which he wrote, and our own. (I have often wondered what this Marxist essayist and critic of capitalist culture would think of the extent of commercialisation and commodity fetishism now.)
(Image; Vintage Publishing/Jose Carter)
In Flâneuse Elkin adds a feminist spin to this traditionally male figure. Her ‘flâneuse’ is an icon of female independence, subverting the undoubtable fact that a woman walking alone makes more of a statement than that of her male counterpart.
Female writers, artists and creatives have often commented on their inability to extract inspiration from their surroundings due to their sex. In her journals Sylvia Plath speaks of her “consuming desire” to interview whoever came her way, lie in fields at night to collect her thoughts, and create experiences to mould into prose. But, as a woman, she felt unsafe to do so.
The prominent example in Elkin’s London chapter, Virginia Woolf, described a similar social restriction fifty years before, providing a conflict between her identities of woman and author. A woman walking alone through the city, in the context of the original flâneur at least, would undoubtedly be labelled a prostitute, and in more recent times the unwanted attention and intimidation of the city environment is hard to escape.
Tales of sexual harassment and inappropriate propositions in the public sphere are finally being discussed, most notably via the ‘Me Too’ hashtag pioneered by actress Alyssa Milano last week.
While aspiring male writers often speak of taking midnight strolls to cultivate their ideas, I, and my female peers, will take caution as opposed to comfort in the outside world, especially the city at night. The connection between the public presence of a woman and the concept of the flâneur was first explored in a collection of essays entitled The Invisible Flâneuse? Gender, Public Space and Visual Culture in Nineteenth Century Paris.
Pre-Elkin the common belief was that the nineteenth century woman could not be a flâneur, the flâneuse did not exist. While the male centric writings of the cusp of modernity focus on the public sphere, the female experiences of the time were confined to the private.
Elkin’s twentieth century examples, while straying slightly from the historical constraints of Benjamin’s description, offer hope and inspiration for the modern inspiring flâneuse herself. She intertwines their journeys through different spaces with her own; following Virginia Woolf through Bloomsbury, Agnes Varda across the left bank, to Tokyo, New York and Venice before returning to Paris through the eyes of George Sand and the 1848 revolutionaries, making comparisons to her own experience of protest following the multiple attacks facing the city in 2015.
Her final example is that of Martha Gellhorn, an esteemed war correspondent who is unfortunately often known solely as Hemingway’s third wife, and who Elkin envisions as a flâneuse of the world. Elkin’s elegant yet personable prose allows the reader to believe that there is in fact a place in the world for the female wanderer, and that urban inspiration will cure any creative block.
Words, Maya Conway