Women who wander

For International Women’s Day, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the flâneuse. She’s a woman who wanders city streets dawdling, observing and thinking. Not a streetwalker in the sex-worker sense. The term comes from the French male equivalent flâneur, once used to describe famous writers and painters who strolled the streets of Paris. I recently read Lauren Elkin’s highly engaging Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. Straightaway, Elkin points out that a flâneuse is not merely a female flâneur, ‘but a figure to be reckoned with, and inspired by, all on her own. She voyages out, and goes where she’s not supposed to.’

I’ve long been a flâneuse myself, walking alone the streets of towns and cities I’ve lived in and visited. Part of this is for the love of walking, but also out of curiosity and for the stimulation of city life – the architecture, the buses and trains, the workers, shoppers, runners and tourists, the aromas from cafes and restaurants and those cherished green spaces of public parks and squares. I was reminded of my walking excursions in old European cities with this passage, where Elkin describes her flânerie in Paris:

‘I am always looking for ghosts on the boulevards. So many people have passed through Paris; did they leave any residue? Some parts of town seem still to be inhabited by older souls who won’t leave – up towards the Portes Saint-Denis and Saint-Martin I think I can feel them, crowds of people in bowler hats and long skirts, I can sense them pressing past me along with the people I recognise from my own time, bare-headed and in short skirts.’

As you can see, some of this book is memoir and travelogue about her own experiences, but equally interesting, it’s also biography and literary criticism. Elkin delves into the lives and writings of famous flâneuses, including Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Martha Gellhorn and George Sand (who dressed as a man to freely walk the streets). One of the flâneuses not mentioned that I would have included is Phyllis Pearsall (1906-1996), who created the A-to-Z maps of London. In producing the first edition of the detailed maps, she walked for 18 hours each day traversing over 23,000 roads covering more than 3,000 miles.

As I reflect on these courageous and somewhat quirky women, I’m aware that they have had the fortune of being for the most part middle class and living in the West, with some freedoms not afforded to poorer women or to women even today, rich or poor, living in some other parts of the world. I am also aware in our present day that these women, these lucky flâneuses, were wandering through cities not under siege – another stark reminder of what people lose at times of war.

Novelist Jean Rhys