Lilian Pizzichini

Girls about town

Flâneuse describes Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Martha Gellhorn and others strolling round town looking for inspiration — in plodding prose

On 8 June 1920 an old beggar woman sat against a wall in Kingsway holding a mongrel in her arms and singing aloud. Virginia Woolf noted in her diary that there was a recklessness to her. She was singing for her own amusement, shrilly, and then fire engines came by singing shrilly, too. ‘Sometimes everything gets into the same mood; how to define this one I don’t know.’

In the mid-1980s, on my daily journey to Charing Cross Road, I would get off the 38 bus on the corner with New Oxford Street. Every morning I would see an old woman huddled in the doorway of what is now a building site. Enthroned on her rags, oblivious to her surroundings, she had stopped caring. In her diary that day, Woolf said she was overwhelmed by the dead walking the city streets. I wondered where this woman came from and how she had settled on this doorway as her home. Perhaps another of Woolf’s ghostly tenants had passed down the leasehold to her successor.

The concept of the aimless wanderer, observer and reporter of street life, was first taken for an outing by the French poet Baudelaire. His flâneur was an extension of himself: an aesthete and dandy, wandering the streets and arcades of 19th-century Paris, noting down graffiti and advertisements and listening to snatches of conversation, on the lookout for visual rhymes. Traditionally, the flâneur was male, since women were confined to the domestic sphere, and any such constraint is inimical to the wanderer’s aim.

In this memoir of her postings across three continents, the novelist and critic Lauren Elkin contemplates what it means to be a woman taking on the role of loafer. For the most part, her findings reveal that the female flâneur — or flâneuse, as she prefers — has to withstand the inquiring gaze of admirers and admonishing prudes and predatory hasslers.

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