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Walking to freedom: The flâneuses George Sand (left) and Lauren Elkin (Lauren Elkin © Marianne Katser)


What shall we call a woman who walks the city alone? Not a streetwalker, because that gives the wrong impression. Nor a night-walker, as Charles Dickens called himself. That too suggests misbehaviour. Virginia Woolf wrote of “street sauntering & square haunting”. A saunterer, then, or a haunter.

I take an interest because I am a London walker, a Hyde Park rambler, a hiker of the Finchley Road. I like “owling”, as in “owling around town”. It suggests wise Athena, rather than tempting, street-soliciting Aphrodite.

Lauren Elkin, a literary critic and academic, proposes “flâneuse”, a female counterpart to Charles Baudelaire’s “flâneur”, introduced in his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life” as an idler, a man about town, a swinger of swordsticks, at ease, yet apart, in a crowd. Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London is part cultural history of women writers, artists and film-makers who have walked their cities, part personal memoir.

Elkin is a flâneuse in search of a city to call home. She moves from Long Island — where one does not walk, indeed there are no sidewalks, but drives between strip malls — to New York, from New York to Paris, to London, to Venice, to Tokyo, to New York again and back to Paris.

In each new city she finds her feet quite literally by walking, in step with the shades and ghosts of walkers past. In Paris it is Jean Rhys, George Sand (a woman who walked in men’s clothing), and the filmmaker Agnès Varda. In Bloomsbury she walks with Virginia Woolf; in Dorsoduro with artist Sophie Calle; in Tokyo with the expat Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson in the Sofia Coppola film Lost in Translation; and in Kyoto alone, very homesick, but for which home?

George Sand is the most winning of Elkin’s flâneuses, certainly the most daring and flagrant. In 1831, she left her husband and children at Nohant, her estate in the sticks, for Paris.

No woman could politely walk the streets. Even if she dared, her clothes weren’t up to it. Her legs, Sand wrote in her memoirs, were as strong as a man’s: “and so were my good little Berrichon feet, which had learned to walk on bad roads, balancing on thick wooden clogs. But on the pavements of Paris I was like a boat on ice. Delicate footwear cracked in two days; overshoes made me clumsy; I wasn’t used to lifting my skirts. I was muddy, tired, runny-nosed, and I saw my shoes and clothing — not to mention the little velvet hats — splattered in the gutters, falling into ruin with frightening rapidity.”

There was only one thing for it: to walk as man. She had a “rédingote-guérite” — a long overcoat — made in heavy grey-cloth with trousers and waistcoat to match. At 26, she was slight enough to pass for a first-year university student. She chucked feminine slippers for heavy boots. “I can’t express the pleasure my boots gave me: I would gladly have slept with them on, as my brother did when he got his first pair. With those little iron-shod heels, I was solid on the pavement. I flew from one end of Paris to the other. It seemed to me that I could go round the world.”

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