Bold Women About Town

The flâneuse — the female counterpart to the flâneur — and her adventures in cities past and present

Books
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.”

For all Elkin’s women, flâneusing is freedom: liberation from stuffy stucco Kensington, from fathers and husbands, from chaperones, carriages, corsets and flimsy, stilted, pigeon-toed shoes. Elkin quotes Virginia Woolf in The Years, writing of the Pargiter sisters: “For any of them to walk in the West End even by day was out of the question. Bond Street was as impassable, save with their mother, as any swamp alive with crocodiles. The Burlington Arcade was nothing but a fever-stricken den as far as they were concerned.”

The book is at its best when it is about the sole-to-pavement immediacy of city walking. When it gets into critical theory, one has the feeling of being lost without an A-Z. I have not an inkling what is meant by: “The real question here is whether any national identity is truly tenable. The post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha has written that minoritarian identities can be powerful, but not if they concretise into solid formations, battlements defended from behind.” But my heart soared in the Bloomsbury chapter, which made me want to lace up my brogues for a “prowl” with Virginia Woolf around the bookshops on the Charing Cross Road. More boots, less Barthes.

Derrida, Bhabha and Barthes aside, this is a splendid, rallying book. I closed its covers, buttoned my mac and flew owling out the door. Crocodiles be damned!

It is a very different sort of reptile terrorising walking women in Sarah Perry’s second novel The Essex Serpent, a thrillingly sinister and spine-shivering book. It is 1893 and the village of Aldwinter and the surrounding Blackwater marshes are being menaced by a . . . something. An amphibious oddity. A leviathan. A Kraken. A sea adder.

A by-the-pricking-of-my-thumbs monster. Black-winged. Blunt-beaked. Arrow-tailed. Fourteen-foot long. Smelling of salt, brine and rotting fish.

A girl with webbed fingers goes missing. Boats are lost with the tide. The girls at the village school are seized by frantic, head-rolling hysterics. Wrecks wash up on shore.

The mood is Wilkie Collins, the science has the hiss and bubble of Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson, the collective madness, the minds playing tricks have the same troubling power of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, but Perry’s novel is very much its own beast. She is a beguiling nature writer and a spinner of a clammy, nervous tale.

The voice of reason, though less and less certain in her scepticism as the Serpent madness catches, is Cora Seaborne. She is a fossil-hunter and flâneuse. When we meet her, she is a widow, determined to walk home alone from her late husband’s funeral. Her husband’s doctor, her friend, Luke Garrett, offers to take her.

“You shouldn’t do it. You can’t go alone.”

“Shouldn’t? Can’t?” Cora took off her gloves, which were no more proof against the cold than a cobweb. She thrust them at Garrett. “Give me yours — I can’t think why they make these, or why women buy them — I can walk, and I will. I’m dressed for walking, see?” She lifted her hem and displayed boots better suited to a schoolboy.

She takes her son, Francis, and lady’s companion, Martha, to Colchester where she walks and walks and walks, stamping her grief over years of her husband’s neglect into the cold Essex clay.

When she meets the Reverend William Ransome — science meeting faith — her hems are heavy with wet and mire. Echoes of Elizabeth Bennett, petticoats six inches deep in mud. We know later that Cora and William have fallen in love when they fall easily into step, matching pace for pace, her tall stride as long as his.

But are you still a flâneuse if you walk with a man? In Eimear McBride’s second novel The Lesser Bohemians, following the success of A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing, which drew comparisons with James Joyce, there is an early, rush-rush, “bus-lunged” walking scene.

The narrator, Eily, a drama student, very gauche and new to London, is led on a city dance by a much older man — “twice as old as me” — to whom she has recently lost her virginity. From the National Theatre they cross the Hungerford Bridge to Embankment — “Here’s London spread out for you” . . . “And I stand, strick, by its great space” — to Charing Cross, Chinatown, Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road, Gower Street, Gordon Square, Euston Road, Mornington Crescent, and Kentish Town.

Eily doesn’t walk, she follows, struggling to keep up: “He drags me . . . [I] trail him over the bridge . . . Could you slow down? I can’t walk as quick.” She thinks: “Oh God please take my hand.” Worn out, she asks: “Can we get the tube?” Outside his Kentish Town flat, “he grabs me as I go the wrong gate.”

In the second-hand section of Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, he chooses a book for her — about Marlowe — and pays for it. Virginia Woolf, by contrast, found much that she wanted in the shops on the same street “which, were my purse obliging, I would get”. But she doesn’t buy until she is certain of book review work from The Times. Financial independence is another freedom of the flâneuse.

London is a gorgeous presence in The Lesser Bohemians. The city seduces, where the older actor — for all the visceral strip-lick-God!-Stop-Oh-fuck-tug-wrangling-mischief of the sex scenes — fails to charm.

If you are squeamish then both the sex writing and the passages about the actor’s abusive mother are disagreeable. McBride’s language is undoubtedly inventive, twisting and surprising, but it is not a nice book and Eily is an unrewarding heroine, more wet flannel than flâneuse. Give me instead Virginia Woolf, George Sands and Cora Seaborne, give me hob-nailed boots, and city streets alone in mizzling rain.