Laura Elkin’s book Flâneuse is not the first book about women who are the counterparts of the more usual male figure, the flâneur, A few other books with this title predate hers. Her book has a subtitle: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London and reads very much like a doctoral dissertation, although the language is not quite as academic, and the book tends to offer a warmer reading experience than the expected dry fare of the dissertation. The flâneur she tells us is “one who walks aimlessly…A figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention.
Flâneuse is the feminine form and denotes “an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities. But each flâneuse discussed in any detail by Elkin is not truly idle. These women were writers, photographers, artists. Until recently it was difficult for a woman to be a flâneuse. Writer Janet Wolff did not give credence to the flâneuse as “such a character was rendered impossible by the sexual divisions of the nineteenth century.” Other writers agree. But Elkin reminds us that the rise of the department store in the 1850’s and 60’s “did much to normalize the appearance of women in public.”
Laura Elkin was born on Long Island where no one walked anywhere. Her father was an architect who designed some of the corporate headquarters as companies left the city and moved into newly designed corporate parks. But Elkin discovered that she belonged in cities when she moved into New York City to attend college. “To sit in a restaurant on Broadway with the world walking by and the cars and the taxis and the noise was like finally being let in to the centre of the universe, after peering in at it for so long.”
The book is dense with detailed examples of women writers, artists, journalists, and more who felt most at home in cities and used the intimate details of city life gained through wandering and observation to enlighten us all. Elkin gives us a taste of London, following in Virginia Woolf’s footsteps; a soupçon of Venice, New York, and Tokyo (where wandering alone around the city is basically impossible even in daylight); but mainly of Paris which ended up being her home.
Artists she expands on in some detail, both about their lives and their work include Jean Rhys (allied with Ford Maddox Ford), George Sand (who dressed as a boy/man to roam the city freely), Virginia Woolf, Martha Gellhorn (wife of Ernest Hemingway and war journalist and more), and Agnès Varda, in French films.
Elkin’s sums things up in this way, “You don’t need to crunch around in Gore-Tex to be subversive, if you’re a woman. Just walk out your front door.” Reading this tome is a bit like being a literary flâneuse without having to leave your armchair – lots of great little tidbits.