Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin review – wandering women

In this enjoyable memoir-cum-cultural history, Lauren Elkin calls upon the female spirit of idle strolling

The flâneur was born in 19th-century Paris, his native habitat the boulevards and arcades of Haussmann’s newly redesigned city. “The crowd is his domain, just as the air is the bird’s, and water that of the fish,” wrote Charles Baudelaire, the poet, essayist and art critic famed for his description of the ephemerality of life in the modern metropolis. The flâneur is a man of means and leisure; one of action – he walks and he observes – but not involvement. He is detached from the crowd rather than a participant: a “central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye”, writes Virginia Woolf in her 1927 essay Street Haunting. But Woolf’s description is based on her own perambulations around London, and if we learned one thing from Baudelaire, it’s that the flâneuse does not exist. Women lacked access to the city streets that their male counterparts took for granted, reduced instead to mere objects upon which the flâneur’s gaze alighted and delighted. From Edgar Allan Poe’s The Man of the Crowd, through the psychogeographers of today, the city streets remain a site of masculine privilege, “As if a penis were a requisite walking appendage, like a cane,” Lauren Elkin adds wryly.

Flâneuse is characterised by such playful subversiveness. I imagine Elkin as an intrepid feminist graffiti artist, scrawling “Woman woz here” on every wall she passes. Deliciously spiky and seditious, she takes her readers on a rich, intelligent and lively meander through cultural history, biography, literary criticism, urban topography and memoir, arguing that the flâneuse is any “determined, resourceful individual keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk”.

Elkin isn’t the first to contest the status quo – feminist scholars have long debated the existence of the flâneuse, and Rebecca Solnit covered some of Elkin’s ground in Wanderlust: A History of Walking – but her call to “redefine the concept itself”, rather than simply attempt to squeeze female experience into the masculine mould, is effectively clearsighted. “We can talk about the social mores and restrictions,” she says with a similar straight-talking clarity, “but we cannot rule out the fact that women were there.”

There’s Woolf in Bloomsbury, of course, sallying forth under the guise of buying a pencil; and Sophie Calle, the artist turned flâneuse as stalker who pursued her quarry alongside the Venetian canals. Then there’s Paris, where George Sand swapped her cumbersome skirts and dainty footwear for a suit of sturdy grey cloth and boots with “iron-shod heels” in order to access the freedoms of the cobblestones; where Jean Rhys, like her dissolute and dispossessed protagonists, haunted the cafes of the Left Bank; and where Agnès Varda, in whose films women both are looked at and do the looking, lived and worked.

Elkin has mapped her own identity on to the streets of every city she’s lived in. She found her feet as a student walking the Manhattan grid (she had grown up in the Long Island suburbs, where driving was de rigueur), but the passion only really took hold when she moved to Paris. Brief sojourns in London, Venice and Tokyo brought whole new cities to explore – how does flânerie work in a city that people don’t navigate on foot? – along with the discovery of a sisterhood of fleet-footed flâneuses.

Impressively, Elkin doesn’t simply make a case for the re-evaluation of her titular figure; ultimately she makes flânerie itself appear urgent and contemporary. I defy anyone to read this celebratory study and not feel inspired to take to the streets in one way or another.

Flâneuse is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). Click here to buy it for £13.93


Lucy Scholes

The GuardianTramp

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