I’ve yet to meet a writer who doesn’t appreciate the pleasures of a leisurely stroll through a city. Overheard snatches of conversation, relationships being negotiated, the press of a rush hour crowd, hidden courtyards and quiet parks, provide rich fodder for the imagination.
I’ve long aspired to the status of flâneur, the observer who sets himself (usually) aside from the crowd to take pleasure in watching. Exploring cities on foot is a favourite pasttime, from the Manchester of my student years, to Paris, New York, Florence, Madrid – and of course my home town, London. So I was intrigued to find out more about the female experience, from Lauren Elkin, author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City, in conversation with Brian Dillon at the London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury.
A flâneuse, Elkin tells us, is ‘a determined resourceful woman keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk’. I’ll take that.
Paris spawned the notion of the flâneur. Self-consciously dressing up their wanderings in a frock-coat of literary intent, writers like Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin claimed the streets and cafès as their own. It’s always been harder for women. Writer Georges Sands famously borrowed her brother’s boots and breeches for her own perambulations through Paris, delighting in being able to disappear into the crowd.
The difficulty comes, as Elkin said, with the male gaze. Much as women might like to go unnoticed while walking alone in the city, ‘it’s the gaze of the flâneur that makes us so conspicuous.’ There’s an queasy connection between a woman walking the streets, and a street-walker. Why has this woman left her home to go gadding about the city, if not for business or pleasure, or the business of pleasure?
The problem has by no means disappeared. I was threatened with sexual violence as a student walking home through Manchester late at night. When I wanted to stroll in Madrid, where I lived in my early 30s, I’d choose a nondescript outfit that would not result in the hisses and shouts of ‘Rubia!’ (Blondie) that followed me if I dared to wear a short skirt. Now that I’m older, I can walk London with impunity. It’s a relief, but I feel sad that I had to look dull. Why shouldn’t the flâneuse adopt her own flamboyant, dandy style? It’s not about being invisible, I realise, just about being comfortable.
Bloomsbury seemed a good place to consider the flâneuse. It’s a fine place to wander, through the squares and gardens. Bloomsbury doyenne Virginia Woolf wrote one of the finest novels of walking the city, in Mrs Dalloway, whose footsteps you can trace around town. Clarissa Dalloway, of course, wasn’t merely wandering, but out to buy the flowers. Shopping is an acceptable excuse for women walking alone. Only Peter Walsh, her former admirer, is able to be ‘completely free’ in his wanderings, to the extent of following a woman through the streets, wondering whether she is ‘respectable’.
Respectability seems a great hindrance for a flâneuse. Some of my favourite writing comes in the novels of Sarah Waters, who gives us transgressive women – feminists, lesbians, cross-dressers, thieves – walking the streets for pleasure or profit, or simply for something to do. Her description in The Night Watch of walking the bombed streets of the city during the black-out has a particularly hallucinatory power.
I’m looking forward to learning more about artistic flâneuse through Elkin’s book, including the film-maker Agnes Varda and photographer Sophie Calle. Both did interesting things with the female gaze, not least turning it on men. Neither of them sound in the least bit respectable, and I’m delighted to make their acquaintance.
Flâneuse is published by Penguin.