A flâneur, the masculine version of the French word designating one who wanders aimlessly for pleasure or to incorporate what is seen into artworks and writing, invariably a male of means, leaves out the possibility for a female to do the same. It first came into use in the 19th century. The feminine version flâneuse didn’t make an appearance for a very long time, the obvious reason that such behavior went against social mores. Working class women would have had access to the street but limited to certain areas—and never given to just meandering.
When my friend Linda Sohner mentioned she was reading Flâneuse, I thought—of course—women rarely ventured out of the confines of their homes back then except perhaps escorted by an “appropriate” companion, usually a older family member, husband or maid. Or, if strolling alone, were often harassed and saddled with a questionable reputation. A rare few would have had the freedom to walk solo in cities or travel alone to far-flung, often remote places. Only in the last fifty years is it more common. I don’t forget those who came before me…so I can have the freedom to flâner as I so enjoy.
This book features those explorers and adventurers. That’s what they must be called. What we may now take for granted was once uncharted waters. Such a timely reading in the midst of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, and just after the Women’s March. Females were kept under wraps in so many ways that, when it began to shift, it was those, in that first flush, that took the initial steps, who must be applauded. Their courage or maybe the “arrogance” to show that they were just done with it all…those “things that just weren’t done.”
The book opens with how these women wanted to be seen or unseen in public spaces. Did they want to merge with the shadows or stand out in the crowd to make a statement? That question may still valid to any of us but typically unconscious. During those prior times, as suggested, it would have been at the forefront.
Against the backdrop of their time, city, political atmosphere and personal struggles, Laura Elkin features writers Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf and George Sand—my personal inspiration since my 20s—filmmakers Sophia Calle and Agnes Varda. Then she adds her own present-era experiences showing what is different and what of the past remains the same.
It also points out a trend: No matter the gender or socio-economic status, the art of walking with all it brings—and freedom of movement—is again becoming increasingly lost to us.
I found the book quite interesting and learned some things I didn’t know. One amusing example: In France, a law against cross-dressing was introduced in the early 1800s, to keep women in their place. George Sand was never arrested for her blatant disregard, and the law remains on the books.
Flâneuse was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2017. Available in print, ebook and audio at Amazon and elsewhere.