Lauren Elkin. Flaneuse: Women walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. London: Vintage, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback.
As a Geographer, the flaneur is a familiar figure. It refers to some one who walks through cities, normally with no specific destination in mind, observing the city, it’s people, and it’s character. Flaneurs are mostly wealthy, and overwhelmingly male. But that has never quite sat right with me. After all, I love wandering around cities seeing what I can see, and I am not wealthy. Or male. So when I first heard Lauren Elkin speak, at an event at the Museum of London, I was intrigued by what she had to say about the female flaneur; the flaneuse.
But surely there have always been plenty of women in cities, and plenty of women writing about cities, chronicling their lives, telling stories, taking pictures, making films, engaging with the city in any way they can…The joy of walking in the cities belongs to men and women alike.
Elkin, 2017; p.11
Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London is hard to categorise. It’s publisher defines it as memoir/social and cultural history and whilst this sounds like an odd mix, it is quite accurate. I think at its heart, it is an argument to redefine the concept of the flaneur to include women. Elkin offers up her new definition, and then spends the rest of the book providing us with examples; attempting to persuade us of the existence of the flaneuse. As evidence, Elkins tells us about women whose walking in cities is in some way central to who they are, such as their identity or livelihood. Some of the examples are well known; Virginia Woolf in London and George Sand in Paris. Others are perhaps less so: French filmmaker Agnes Cards in Paris and Elkin herself in Tokyo and Paris. I would say Elkin makes a very convincing argument, but she was pushing against an open door with me; others may be harder to convince.
If you are expecting a straight social history of women walking in cities, then you will be disappointed. It is more a series of snapshots into this history. Some of these snapshots contain quite detailed descriptions of the cultural outputs of the women featured, such as the novels of Jean Rhys and the art of Sophie Calle. Elkin is an English Lecturer, and at these points in the book this background comes through the clearly. In this way, Flaneuse is similar to Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London by Matthew Beaumont, about the writings of the (overwhelmingly male) people who walked the streets of London after dark. Nightwalking feels like a more coherent history than Flaneuse, but that is largely because it focuses on one city rather than five. To be fair to Elkin, I don’t think she set out to narrate a history, and what she has done is done well.
I read Flaneuse over two days, mainly on two long journeys. Even if I am enjoying a book, I sometimes lose focus after an hour or two of reading. This wasn’t the case with Flaneuse; chapter after chapter kept me hooked. Elkin is a good writer, her work is engaging and thoughtful. The book is a nice balance of Elkin’s own story and the stories of the women and cities who have shaped her.
Some sections of Flaneuse were published elsewhere first, but there was only one point that I guessed the book wasn’t written as a coherent whole. The chapter on Tokyo revolves around Elkin’s relationship with a French banker–she moves to Japan to be with him when he is transferred. In a later chapter, she mentions this relationship as if she is telling the reader about him for the first time. It is a minor detail however, perhaps made so noticeable because it is the only such slip-up in the whole book. Each chapter is named after the city in which it is set. I think this is slightly misleading as, although the cities are very important, it is the women who wander them that are the book’s driving force.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. I would recommend it to anyone interested in women’s or urban history, anyone who fancies something a bit different, or anyone who just appreciates a good book.