Undergraduate English

The Flâneuse Herself

You might be asking yourself, what or who is a flâneuse? First, we must explain what exactly a flâneur is. From the French noun, flâneur means “stroller” or “loafer.” The term carries rich associations, such as the man of leisure, of fashion, the idler, the connoisseur of the streets. Flânerie is the act of strolling through an urban setting—an essential component of the flâneur. Now that we’ve established what a flâneur is, we can address the flâneuse, and who better to answer that question than Dr. Lauren Elkin, a Lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool and author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City.

Dr. Lauren Elkin

Originally from New York, Elkin graduated from Barnard College with a PhD in phenomenology and British women’s writing in the 1930s (focusing on the work of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Jean Rhys, and Rosamond Lehmann), as well as an M.Phil. in French literature from Sorbonne. Ever since her undergraduate days, Elkin has been fascinated with the concept of the flâneur, wondering why the term wasn’t (and/or couldn’t be) appropriated to include women. Because the flâneur is a strictly masculine identity throughout history, Elkin set about creating her own term for a female flâneur—the flâneuse: “Flâneuse [flanne-euhze], noun, from the French. Feminine form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.”[1] This is, of course, Elkin’s own imaginary definition of the flâneuse. In her book, Elkin identifies her own flâneuses, throughout history, from nineteenth-century novelist George Sand to artist Sophie Callie, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn to filmmaker Agnes Varda.

I first became introduced to Elkin and her work through my English 481 capstone course entitled “The Metropolitan Mind” taught by Dr. Emily James. The class focuses on the twentieth-century city and its effect on the modern citizen. We kicked off our course readings with Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and climbed our way through the twentieth century to more contemporary works like Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009). Our class recently had the pleasure of receiving Dr. Elkin via Skype to discuss her experience in the world of academia, her fascination with the flâneur, and her life as a flâneuse.

My classmate posed an interesting question for Elkin: Do you think technology has made it more difficult to be a flâneur or flâneuse? Both the flâneur and flâneuse are known for wandering the city, typically without a specific agenda or destination in mind. With our easy access to GPS, getting lost is now just as difficult as it was to find your way using only a paper, trifold map. My classmate drew attention to the fact that, in our day and age, we’re never truly lost—unless our phone dies, in which case, we’re on our own. In contrast, Elkin claimed technology has not damaged our ability to pursue flânerie (or flâneuserie—the flâneuse version of flânerie). Rather, she shared how she can just as easily leave her phone in her pocket, get lost exploring a new city (Copenhagen is her next destination), and then, at the end of the day, pull out her phone and know exactly how to find her way home again. If anything, technology has just made it safer to be a flâneuse.

Elkin pressed on, addressing social media platforms and their ability to connect our lives. While social media is frequently criticized for creating a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out), Elkin chooses to focus on the positive. She pointed out that apps like Instagram have made her more aware of the beauty in the everyday, whether it’s a photo of a potted plant or an interesting building shadow. Instagram has added the element of photography to her flâneuserie, and it allows her to share her flâneuse lifestyle with the world.

While chatting with Elkin, our class covered topics ranging from the character of Doris Kilman as the anti-flâneuse of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to what shoes are most fashionable and comfortable for a summer of flâneuserie. Dr. Elkin is a wealth of information, opinions, and fabulous fashion, and after a discussion that lasted the better part of an hour, I think I speak for most of the class when I say I finally know what I want to be when I grow up.

Check out some of Elkin’s work, as well as a few of her interviews in which she discusses her book and her life of flâneuserie:

[1] As read on BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week

Halle is a senior English major with a Renaissance Program minor who is currently working as a research assistant for a professor at UST. Her ardent admiration for nineteenth-century British novelists, specifically Jane Austen, led her to found the blog Looking for Mr. Darcy, in which she utilizes Austen’s characters to discuss and critically analyze norms of twenty-first-century dating.

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