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Lauren Elkin. Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. London: Chatto and Windus, 2016. 336 pp., ISBN 978-0701189020 USD$26 / GBP£15.

Reviewed by Laura Ludtke.

For women walking (in) the city, the personal is political and the political is personal. This is the central thesis of Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London (2016) and the reason why the flâneuse and, by extension, the New Woman, are relevant to life in the twenty-first century. The existence of the flâneuse has long been denied or, in a few instances, qualified by scholars of nineteenth-and twentieth-century urban observers. Elkin addresses these oversights in two ways. First, she proposes an “imaginary definition” of the term, wherein the flâneuse is the “[f]eminine form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities” (7). Such a definition is imaginary only in the sense that most dictionaries do not record it. Second, she argues that any failure to recognise or acknowledge the existence of the flâneuse is a failure of the imagination that effectively, “limit[s] the ways women have interacted with the city to the ways men have interacted with the city” (11). Indeed, as she contends in her close reading of Baudelaire’s poem, “À une passante,” “the presumptive objectivity often accorded to male urban observers is worth challenging” (9). This observation leads to one of Elkin’s most promising assertions, that “the answer is not to attempt to make a woman fit a masculine concept, but to redefine the concept itself” (11). In fact, this is the premise of the book. Yet, the coherency and stability of a concept is always at risk in its redefinition. Elkin tests these definitional boundaries; she presents female flânerie as a mode of being that is at once atemporal and historically contingent.

Flâneuse is singular in that it is simultaneously a work of literary criticism, cultural history, and autobiography. In each chapter, Elkin weaves her own experiences together with examples – she calls them portraits – from history, from literature, and from film. These portraits comprise elements of biography, of literary criticism, and of historical detail. Thus, in her first chapter on Paris (there are several), she approaches her portrait of Jean Rhys through her initial encounter with Rhys’s books at Shakespeare and Company, the cult Anglophone bookshop on the Left Bank of Paris. We learn about Rhys and her novels because Rhys helped Elkin to understand her own relationship with the city. In a later chapter on Venice, we discover Sophie Calle, and her provocative films and photo essays because Elkin happened upon her exhibition at the Biennale while visiting the city to conduct research for her own novel. This mingling of the personal and the literary creates Elkin’s phenomenological and literary encounters with it. Do not mistake the connections she makes between her own experiences and works of literature and art using this diachronic method as being haphazard or coincidental, they are not. They belong to her practice of what she refers to as a “personal topography” – a way of writing and knowing the city that exists in relation to the self (63). One limitation of “personal topography” is that knowledge of a city is restricted to the experiential. We cannot know a city in its entirety, only the parts we visit or in which we live. This can lead to problems of authenticity, problems that afflict both the flâneuse and accounts of her. Can we write about what we do not know directly?

Elkin’s book is concerned with authenticity. On the one hand, these concerns arise from scholarly reservations over the plausibility and, indeed, the possibility of the flâneuse. Arguments against the flâneuse include pointing out her statistical improbability, emphasising the anomaly of any individuals who may be considered such, and condemning any literary representations as ahistorical. Even, as Elkin notes, prominent works on the female urban observer by Janet Wolff, Griselda Pollock, Elizabeth Wilson, and Deborah Parsons have “dismissed the idea of a female flâneur” in one way or another (8). 1 On the other hand, since women’s experiences continue to be challenged on the basis of their veracity and credibility, the need to assert one’s authenticity persists. Yet, in expressing a desire to become familiar with the cities she inhabits in a way “that marked the difference between someone who had lived there, and someone who had only passed through,”, Elkin espouses an epistemology that can result in the privileging of accuracy, proximity, and originality over ways of knowing that might be considered marginal, peripheral, or imaginary (124). Elkin is certainly aware of this dynamic in her chapter on Tokyo, when she laments that she can never get to know the “real” city due to an insurmountable language barrier (165–171). She may not know “the” Tokyo, but she does get to know one of the many possible Tokyos. As Elkin travels from city to city, always returning to Paris, it becomes clear that the twenty-first century flâneuse is both a global phenomenon and a project of globalisation.

There are moments when Elkin moves away from explicit discussions of the flâneuse. These moments, combined with her discursive expository method, present particular challenges to readers approaching her book from a scholarly perspective. Her tendency to end passages with elliptical or gnomic statements can frustrate those who are only concerned with analysis or synthesis. What are we to make of observations like this one: “The city surrounds us, and seeps in. Are we touching it or is it touching us?” (84). We need space to reflect on and to digest in order to formulate a response or to progress; sometimes Elkin gives us this space and other times she gestures beyond her own text. For instance, in an attempt to decode the aphoristic question quoted above, we could turn to Derrida’s investigation of the meanings of “touch” in Le toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy. Given the variety of meanings attributed to the French term for “touch” used by Derrida, Elkin could be referring to the way in which an individual borders on, intersects with, or disturbs the city. 2 This would align with her expansion of the concept of the flâneuse to encompass women’s urban experiences beyond those of walking, observing, and writing to include moments of love, survival, misery, loneliness, confusion, connection, and success.

Though Elkin asks why the flâneuse was excluded from the nineteenth century’s self-narratives, finding that this is because she existed outside of that period’s self-conception, her investigation falls short of examining what factors subtend this exclusion. To satisfy our historicist compulsions, we must turn to Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking (2015). In the middle ages, Beaumont explains, the idleness and precariousness of those who roamed the streets at night – symptoms of poverty and alienation – posed a greater threat to “the diurnal order and its political economy of industriousness” than gender did (72). Only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did women – bearing the double(d) burden of being responsible for the morality and productivity of the men in their lives – begin to assume more responsibility for this threat. This marked what Paul Griffiths refers to as the “feminisation of night walking” (218). In the nineteenth century, as leisure and disposable income became increasingly accessible to the middle classes, society was suspicious of women not engaged in domestic labour. Thus, women who were solitary, unattached, or independent were seen as subversive. These women and their descendants are of interest to Elkin, even if she does not specifically discuss them as being iterations of the New Woman. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, women still live in relation to men, but they are increasingly articulating these relationships in their own terms.

What distinguishes Elkin’s study from Beaumont’s is her recovery of women’s narratives and histories. Though his account of the nightwalker may be more historically cohesive, it considers the subject from a male perspective since, behind even the most benign uses of the genderless pronouns “one” or “you,” lurks a presumptive maleness. Beaumont does discuss some texts that address women’s experiences, such as Samuel Johnson’s sensitive account of an eighteenth century prostitute, but on the whole his texts are overwhelmingly by men and about men. This opens up important questions about what responsibility those writing about the city and its representations have to recover and to restore voices that have been unrecorded, marginalised, disregarded, or lost. Elkin’s own occasional elision of I/we proves the difficulty of simultaneously addressing the individual and the universal or collective experience, and focussing exclusively on women’s experiences presents its own challenges. With only a few notable exceptions, including Woolf, Parsons, and Rebecca Solnit, the majority of writers who theorise the city and walking are male. Elkin herself must draw on Walter Benjamin, Homi Bhabha, Henri Lefebvre, Lewis Mumford, and Georges Perec in order to reflect critically on the flâneuse. For this reason, her transformation of the women whose portraits she is painting – Rhys, Calle, Agnès Varda, George Sand, and Martha Gellhorn – into theorists of female flânerie is all the more impressive.

In elevating the visibility of women who write and walk the city, Elkin offers a necessary and timely corrective to the “reified canon of masculine writer-walkers” created by those male psychogeographers writing in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries (19). Her wry observations – “[a]s if a penis were a requisite walking appendage, like a cane” – will resonate with anyone who wonders why men have felt comfortable inserting themselves into women’s spaces, experiences, and lives (19). By insisting that women can “claim our right to disturb the peace, to observe (or not observe), to occupy (or not occupy) and to organise (or disorganise) space on our own terms,” she positively reaffirms a diversity of existence and experiences (288). Ultimately, and cumulatively, Elkin creates a space in which we can finally locate the flâneuse: between the political and the personal.

Laura Ludtke is an early career researcher investigating the connections between technology, gender, politics, and aesthetics in the city in late-Victorian, Edwardian, and Modernist literature. Her chapter “Public and Private Space in Virginia Woolf's novel Night and Day” looks at the impact of artificial light on women's experiences of the city and was published in Dark Nights, Bright Lights: Night, Darkness, and Illumination in Literature (DeGruyter, 2015), edited by Folkert Degenering and Susanne Bach. Ludtke is former editor-in-chief of the bi-weekly online Oxonian Review and has also published a review in Notes & Queries. Her doctoral research at St Anne's College, Oxford, was funded by a Doctoral Fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


1 Though Parsons may not champion the flâneuse as ardently as Elkin might like, in demythologising the flâneur as a literary construct, she nevertheless makes the strongest case for the existence of female urban observers to date.
2 Roger Luckhurst’s explication that Derrida’s discourse hinges on his use of “the senses of toucher à, both to touch and to meddle with,” is helpful here (177).

Works Cited

Beaumont, Matthew. Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London Chaucer to Dickens. Brooklyn, New York: Verso, 2015.

Derrida, Jacques. Le toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy. Paris: Galilée, 2000.

Griffiths, Paul. “Meanings of Nightwalking in Early Modern England.”. The Seventeenth Century 13.2 (211AD): 1998.

Luckhurst, Roger. “(Touching On) Tele-Technology.”. Applying: To Derrida. Ed. John Brannigan, Ruth Robbins, and Julian Wolfreys. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996. 171– 183.