To walk through a city is an exhilarating, at times overwhelming, experience. It is through walking that we come to understand the ins and outs of a space, gain a practical sense of the city’s layout, and eventually build our own identity in relation to the shops and sights that we pass. Though occasionally fraught with catcalls and unease for women, to walk in a city can be a source of empowerment and independence, a liberation from the isolation of the home. In her new book, Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin explores the relationship between women and the cities where they walk, live, and create.
The term flâneuse is a play on the French word flâneur, defined loosely as a man who wanders a city. It’s a term that in the masculine captures a sort of dandy-esque idyll, a man who takes ownership of a city by being present in the street and becoming intimately acquainted with the ebb and flow of it. To be able to do so was reserved solely for men when the term came into use around 1840, a time when women were still relegated to the house or decorum demanded she be chaperoned when in public. The idea that a woman can not wander a city overlooks their presence in urban spaces throughout history; women have always been a backbone of the urban economy and landscape. But to be a flâneur requires a leisure that some women have only recently been afforded.
Elkin’s book draws on art, literature, journalism, and cultural history to put the flâneuse back in the picture. The term is still limited to women with privilege; the women who in modern history could afford to be flâneuses are primarily white and economically secure. From Jean Rhys and Virginia Woolf to Agnes Varda and Martha Gellhorn, Elkin crafts a portrait of the way these women have used urban spaces to drive their creativity and to find liberation in the anonymity afforded by crowded city streets.
Brooklyn Magazine: It seems that the roots of this book are pretty firmly embedded in your own relationship to walking—you’ve had an interesting relationship with walking from growing up in the suburbs to living in Paris. Can you share a little bit about the journey to writing this book?
Lauren Elkin: I was really interested in the figure of the flâneur when I was at university and wanted to write my senior thesis really earnestly on the flâneuse.I was really intimidated by the more or less unanimous critical opinion that there could not be a flâneuse because she did not exist on the same terms as the flaneur. Women did not have the freedom to walk around cities aimlessly at the time when Baudelaire was codifying the image that we have today of the flaneur. But I wanted to come back to it, and in 2011 or 2012, after I finished my PhD, I thought, “Now is the time.”
The very idea of the flâneur is kind of vague, and we can’t seem to agree what the flâneur means. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson in her book Paris as Revolution does this amazing literature review on how the term flaneur has been modified and adapted and co-opted, and she says the term flâneur is itself kind of a blank canvas. I thought, why can’t the flâneuse be whatever we want her to be?
As I started researching a book on the flâneuse and reading about women living and walking in cities and making art in cities, it struck me how there were all these incredible and really intense way that women were interacting with cities that came down to foot to pavement encounters, but meant so much more in term of what they were trying to accomplish or what kind of obstacles they were coming up against, and that the flâneuse was not just a female version of the flâneur but a term that could represent all the ways women have been inspired by walking in cities.
You grew up in a suburban area where walking was not encouraged, and there is a social stratification to the act of walking in parts of the United States. As an American, do you feel there’s a different culture of walking that shapes the way we see it as opposed to in Europe or elsewhere around the world?
It’s hard to generalize what the American experience is, but so many people who have talked to me about the book come from a suburban background or rural background, and at least in the 80s and 90s when we grew up, there’s this rich American experience of growing up in the suburbs and being confined in that way. For Americans who grow up in the suburbs or rural areas , the moment you gain your liberty as an individual is when you get your driver’s license. You find yourself a set of wheels and you go, so walking is kind of marginalised in the American imagination in terms of how we think about the liberty it can confer. Maybe we think about the Transcendentalists, maybe we look to Europe, maybe we look more recently to the work of Rebecca Solnit, but we really don’t have a great American walking tradition. I’d add the caveat that my field is British and French literature, so I’m woefully under read on American representations.
In a lot of ways, the book presents women in cities as being laced with contradictions. On one hand, it is empowering, and on the other, in many ways, it is dangerous. Women can’t be traditional flâneurs because they are hypervisible, but are largely erased from the history of cities. Those juxtaposing views fascinated me.
The place to start from, although it’s not where the book starts, is Virginia Woolf’s essay “Street Haunting.” When it came time to write that chapter, it struck me that she doesn’t actually gender the street haunter. It’s written in first person so we could assume it’s Woolf herself or a double of Woolf, but it’s not really clear that it is Woolf. Maybe it is, maybe it’s a special non-gendered voice. So she kind of gets around the idea of, “Could a woman walk in the city without attracting unwanted attention?” She just rejects that. She wrote about it later, but in “Street Haunting” she’s not worried about gender. She just wants to go out walking. I don’t know if Woolf thought, “I’m not going to deal with the the gendered politics of walking, so I’m just going to go for a walk.” But that’s the effect when you read that essay. It offers a really powerful way forward in neutrality.
I don’t want to say men should not speak to women or no one should speak to anyone. I don’t think that would make for a great ambiance in the city streets. Obviously we would like to walk around unmolested, which happens more rarely than you’d think, but there’s women doing the same thing men do attracts so much attention and critique, so it would be nice if we could occupy space in a neutral way if that’s what we want. If we want to be anonymous, we should have the right. But to some women it’s important to make a splash or be seen.
Your chapter on Tokyo was interesting, in that it really highlights the way we relate to space through walking and how the absence of that can change the way we understand a place. But it’s also unique as a chapter that feels more deeply rooted in your personal experience rather than outside works. Can you share a little about writing that chapter?
One of the ideas that I talked to my editor about as I put the book together was how to braid together the women I was writing about and my own experiences walking in cities. There were times when I would write a chapter and have it be mainly literary criticism or cultural studies, but then I’d read it and think, “This is actually really boring.” It needed more of my own voice and what I saw walking in the street, and in the beginning I was really fighting my editor on that. There came a moment in the Tokyo chapter when I was writing about these modern girls in the 1920s — women who were really inspired by Western culture — and I was trying to tell their story but it wasn’t coming together because I couldn’t connect to it myself. So I thought, “Okay, I’m going to write about what it was like for me being a white, Franco-American woman walking in Tokyo, and what it was like being caught between France and Japan.” The way I loved Paris was very conditioned by the fact that I am an American who grew up in the suburbs. So what happens when you take a woman who lived in Paris and dropped her in Tokyo? It was disastrous.
My experience was down to my own limitations and not Tokyo itself. Tokyo is many different cities in one, and I’ve talked to people who spent time there and are from there it and they say, “I don’t recognize the city in your experience.” I would love to be taken around Tokyo [by someone] who knows it.
The thrust of the book is, in some ways, the power of women walking in urban spaces. And all too fittingly, we just saw millions women walking in urban spaces all around the world! I would love to hear your thoughts on those protests, and how you see them through the perspective of this book. I was marching in DC and kept thinking of the chapter on protest in Paris.
How amazing was it? I felt so much better after watching that day. I still feel like the world is going to hell in a handbasket, but I feel better about it! It felt like it let some of the pressure out. It kind of restored my faith in humanity, if that doesn’t sound really cheesy. I was looking at pictures of the marches all around the world, and I was like, “We’re all standing arm and arm! We’re all marching together!”I‘ve never seen that kind of global solidarity in my life, and it came about through women walking in cities.
I wrote in a piece for The Pool right before the marches about the women’s march on Versailles in 1789. You had the storming of the Bastille in July and it kicked off the revolution, but it didn’t really accomplish anything. They freed seven prisoners, but nothing really happened as a result of it. It was a symbolic assault on this building that was thought to be impenetrable. But then the women marched on Versailles. Seven thousand of them ended up walking from the center of Paris to Versailles, and they laid siege. When the women went back to Paris they brought the king and his family with them and installed them in the Tuileries palace. Instead of being protected in the palace of Versailles, the royal family are brought to the center of the city. As a result of the women’s march on Versailles the king agreed to sign the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which he was delaying or postponing before that. So it seems like seven thousand women marching on a palace can have more of an immediate impact than the storming of the Bastille, but we remember the storming of the Bastille because it was so symbolic.
I think it’s just as important that we marched even if nothing immediately comes of it. I’m sure Trump felt massively threatened by it. All these women probably unnerved him–it would unnerve anyone!
In the protest chapter, I wrote about George Sand looking at the multitude of people out the window and then the Charlie Hebdo march, and that feeling of “we’ve all came together–what can’t we accomplish?” That’s what’s on my mind these days. What can we do? I think being out in the world on the streets is making a small, imperceptible difference but a difference nonetheless.
What, for you, is the ultimate take away of this book? What do you hope women and other readers come away with as the central message?
I think the basic power of a woman in public is incredibly subversive and unnerving, so I’d hope that readers read the book and think, “My presence in the world does make a difference and I do have a right to be there.”