In the Footsteps of the Flâneuse

FlaneurIn Kathleen Rooney's novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, one of our picks for the Best Books of January, our heroine wends her way to a New Year's party on the eve of 1985. Once one of the most successful ad women for R.H. Macy’s in the 1930s (the character is based on real-life "Mad Woman" and poet, Margaret Fishback.), Lillian is now in her 80s, which does nothing to dissuade her from flâneuring about New York, engaging with a motley cast of characters, and reminiscing about her extraordinary life (so far). Lillian is in good company. For me she joins the ranks of other notable "literary amblers," like Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses, or Mrs. Dalloway from Virginia Woolf's novel of the same name. Here, Kathleen Rooney reflects on gals gadding about town in literature.  

At DePaul University, I teach a creative writing workshop called Writer as Urban Walker. The subset of that subject that I may be most interested in, though, is Woman as Urban Walker.

Personally, I love flânerie, and frequently take miles-long drifts through my home city of Chicago. As I’m doing so, I think of myself not as a flâneur, but as a flâneuse.

Yet, when I went to put together the reading list for that class, I was struck by how challenging it was to come up with books that focused on the experience of walking while female. In fact, in my search, it almost seemed easier to find people denying the existence of the figure of the female urban walker altogether than it did to find books that actually featured flâneuses.

I could find Griselda Pollock saying, in Vision and Difference, for instance, that, “There is no female equivalent of the quintessential masculine figure, the flâneur: there is not and could not be a female flâneuse.” And Janet Wolff saying in her famous essay “The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity,” that “such a character was rendered impossible by the sexual divisions of the nineteenth century.”

This bummed me out, and in the end, I was able to put a few writers and artists whom I considered flâneuses on my syllabus after all, including Patti Smith, the photographer Vivian Maier, the actress Cookie Mueller, and of course, Virginia Woolf. But I had to admit that Pollock and Wolff had their points—traditionally, aimless walking through the city has been the privilege of men, and so, therefore, has been the privilege of writing about and documenting it.

And that’s partly why I set out to write Lillian Boxfish—I wanted to offer my own small entry into the limited but expanding field of books about flâneuses. And as I did so, the voices that I had in my head the most as models were Jane Jacobs, in her brilliant The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway, of course, but even more so in her witty and playful essay, “Street Haunting: A London Adventure.”

That word, “adventure,” is one of my personal favorite things that walking through a city affords—those chance encounters with strangers, those unexpected detours down bizarre side streets, those stumbles onto views and vistas you’d never be able to reach except on foot.

In this essay, Woolf writes that, “As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room. For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.”

This craving for a release from solitude into an agreeable crowd – this urge to escape from our own space and enter into the space of others – is a big part of what motivates me on my city drifts and what ended up motivating Lillian Boxfish as well.

Often, in my DePaul class, we discuss why there are so few famous flâneuses. My students come up with lots of good reasons, including safety and also how hard it is, when you are female, to be invisible—people are always hailing you as such, rendering it difficult to achieve that Baudelaire-ean ideal of undisturbed spectating. As he writes in his landmark essay on the subject, “The Painter of Modern Life”:

For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world - impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.

We talk about how generally, the incognito of flâneuses is somewhat imperfect. But we also talk about how maybe the problem is less that women have not been or cannot be flâneurs, and more that we need to define them in slightly different terms.

I hope Lillian Boxfish seems like someone who defines her own terms, as a walker and as a person. And she couldn’t exist without the walking of her literary predecessors from the fifteen-year-old prostitute named Ann in DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater to the drifting protagonists of Jean Rhys to Virginia Woolf herself who writes that on a good walk, “Passing, glimpsing, everything seems accidentally but miraculously sprinkled with beauty” and that in the head of the walker, “the eye is sportive and generous; it creates; it adorns; it enhances.”

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