Urban and Historic Women

by Kate Jones

My long-held belief is that you need to be living in either a metropolis or an era of change, in order to produce a manuscript of any kind of merit. That you need to be moving through, or living through, an unprecedented time.

This past winter, I was stuck. The literal and metaphorical similarity was not lost on me. My homeland was entering a third national lockdown, and like most people, I hadn’t left the confines of my city boundaries in almost a year. 

During this time, I re-read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, thinking, If I can’t write from this kind of experience of the world, then I have no business writing at all. Her essays encompass everything that is terrible and wonderful about the world and the people who inhabit it. She writes what she observes; inhabits what she writes. 

Didion’s writing is smart, slick and to the point. Upsetting and unsettling, but never mawkish.  She has a fearless ability to write how a place, a situation, a life, really is from the viewpoint of a casual observer. When asked about her time spent in San Francisco in the 1960s, living amongst the runaways and drug addicts, she says it was a gift to a writer. She went out looking for the story, morphing into the scenery of the place and the people.

How could I, stuck in this small country in the 2020s, hope to transcend into that kind of writing? 

In a time and place where movements were restricted, I took to pounding the streets of the city that birthed me.

The idea of the flaneur, popular for centuries in the writings of men, was adopted increasingly by women writers at the beginning of the last century. Meaning “stroller” or “loafer” in its French vernacular, the figure of the male flâneur came to symbolize the modern idea of a writer and artist, at once immersed in, yet apart from, the busy urbanized environment of the city.

The idea of a woman, wandering any metropolitan city alone and simply “observing,” was distinctly absent from these pictures of the modern city. A woman out alone on the street in the 19th century represented degradation; homeless or drawn into prostitution, or possibly both.  Whole public spaces where women were excluded or invisible.

Enter the flâneuse. 

As women invaded public spaces, areas where women were excluded or invisible, it saw the birth of the flâneuse, the female counterpart. The streets were no longer the provision of men, offering women a chance to subvert stereotypes of the female wanderer.

Unlike the flâneur, who could wander aimlessly as he pleased without so much as the raising of an eyebrow, the female equivalent was more subversive. She wandered where she wasn’t supposed to wander; transgressed; observed; and recorded the things she saw. Got to know the city streets intimately, often to steal back to her rooms and write down what she discovered there, that other women may come to know.  

In short, she made the activity of flânerie her own.

Walks through the deserted city center were disorientating. Used to seeing shoppers and groups of teenagers, old women pulling canvas shopping trolleys, students drinking in the pubs on street corners, the silence and emptiness of the streets was unnerving. Like a dystopian novel. An aftermath of a disaster.  

A statue dedicated to the women of the city who worked in the factories during WWII stands outside the city hall, the place where bands used to come and perform, when audiences were still allowed. The statue has two women with linked arms, but their faces don’t hold fear of the war.  They look liberated. 

I stand beside them and reflect how their lives must have changed in those years. My grandmother told stories of how, through the absence of my grandfather, she found herself with new horizons. Taking a job in the factories to replace the men, it changed the way women worked. It changed the way they dressed, abandoning their confined girdles and dresses for slacks and sweaters. In a mirroring of the now deserted urban pavements, they wandered the city freely in the absence of men.

Virginia Woolf was one of the original flâneuse, penning an essay entitled “Street Hauntingclaiming that, as a woman enters the urban streets alone, she disposes for a while of the things that define her at home.  

By engaging with the world beyond her doorstep, Woolf tapped into her surroundings. The people she saw and the lives lived there inspired her novels, helping her to create her famous title character Mrs Dalloway. Taking walks around Bloomsbury, her London neighborhood, she found inspiration amongst the people she saw, visualizing her central character, placing her in space and time. The first page of Woolf’s novel has the lines

“I love walking in London,” said Mrs Dalloway. “Really, it’s better than walking in the country.”

Not only is Woolf one of the original flâneuse, but the character of Clarissa Dalloway herself is  one. When we read the novel, we, too, are wandering the London streets with her, seeing what she sees.  

Right in the middle of the dark winter days, the news of a violent rape and murder of a young woman in London breaks. I’m thrown into a displacing time past. A female member of parliament demands that men have a nightly curfew, to keep women safe. Outrage and hate pours from social media, and people’s feelings run high. It feels like an unstable time to be on the streets, and yet, it feels essential. It feels that, like Didion with her timely essays; it is a time to be an observer, a witness to change.  

I discover the work of Amy Levy as it turns towards spring, and I’m thinking more about these urban wanderings. 

Levy wrote of Jewish women’s experiences, violence on the streets of London, and its comparison with the mundane beauty in the nature of the city. Reading her collection, A London Plane Tree and Other Verse feels relevant as I see the buds beginning to appear on the blossom trees on my daily rambles.  

Her poem “Confinement” speaks of the country she has left behind, and comparing herself to a caged bird, she wonders whether, if she returned to her homeland from the urbanized culture of London, she would wish to be re-incarcerated.

I have fears for my own daughters who have adopted the walking bug.  They take themselves off on discoveries of their own now. Like me, they enjoy the freedom walking brings them, to get to places they want to be, to explore, to meet friends. I try not to bring my fears for their safety. I am in no position to do that, given my own love of wandering.

I consider if there is a sense of protection to be found in the city, anonymous amongst the citizens, or whether it can still be a place of danger for women.  

It’s saddening to see that in the city space, devoid of its usual bustle, there are still the same homeless women and men huddled in doorways. For them, life has not changed all that much except perhaps to become more dangerous: the new virus could easily be fatal.  

I come upon the large Victorian library. Just sitting in a hardwood chair at a leather topped desk in the Reading Room can spark a connection with the women writers of the past. The women who sat and read, or wrote, subverting their usual domestic roles. Possibly returning home by tea time, to families who had no idea of the places she had visited in her head and with her pen.

But the libraries are still closed, have been for over a year. Another piece of civilization missing from lives already depleted. I walk on.

Jean Rhys, born on the Caribbean island of Dominica and sent to England at the age of 16, wrote novels which are essentially her memories fictionalized. Her books and stories feature sad and often lonely women, wandering the city streets — usually European cities such as Paris and London — seeking male attention and protection. The streets inhabited by Rhys and her fictionalized selves are often unkind, dirty places. How different they must have been to the place she grew up. And yet, she returns again and again, seemingly unable to let go of this attraction to the excitement she finds there.

When I read her perfectly crafted prose, I feel an undeniable nostalgia for travelling to other cities, exploring other worlds. The bustle of the street side cafés and the culture of Paris.  

But I also wonder at her loneliness in such a hectic setting. Her need for connection is strong throughout her novels and reminds me that it is time to return home. To hunker down in this strange and lonely time. In the tradition of these other women writers, to write what I have seen.  

These ideas, of women being visible in the streets and on the pavements felt relevant this winter when “advice” of the dangers of women walking the city at night, and to avoid public areas such as parks, put the responsibility firmly back towards women for their own physical safety, punctuating the narrative. 

After years of moving away from such victim-blaming rhetoric, women risked arrest gathering in the parks, and walking the streets.

Since the birth of the flâneuse, the city has represented a place of freedom for women, full of opportunity, enterprise, and somewhere to blend in with the crowd. To be oneself, perhaps. To observe and find out what it is to be a woman in the world, when simply walking to work can be fraught with tension.