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Reclaiming the Streets

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Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin

As an inveterate walker (I don’t drive…) I was naturally going to be attracted to a book that covered women and walking; especially one that promised a psychogeographical look, rather than marching around in trainers to get fit! (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course). Lauren Elkin’s book takes the concept of a flaneur (defined as “a man who saunters around observing society”) and applies a specifically female experience to this, creating the idea of a flaneuse – and the idea is fascinating.

Elkin is an American abroad in the world, self-exiled from her country of birth, and her concept of flaneuserie is filtered through her own experience. Using a mixture of memoir, herstory and social commentary, Elkin presents an intriguing look about the limitations placed on women’s lives and how transgressive it is (and still can be) for women to simply wander the streets.

Most of the chapters focus on a specific city (Paris more than once, obviously) taking a look at individual women who’ve made the landscape their own. So of course Virginia Woolf stalks the streets of London; George Sand haunts Paris in the grip of revolution; and Sophie Calle pursues her prey through Venice. The books also references cultural media such as the film “Lost in Translation” which features a very specific situation of a woman left to her own devices in Tokyo, a situation mirrored in Elkin’s own life.

The world is less scary when you have some control over where you go in it.

“Flaneuse” is an interesting read; Elkin wears her erudition lightly but references everything from Marina Warner’s “Monuments and Maidens” through any number of novelists to the situationists and surrealists. She makes important points about the marginalisation of women’s experiences and it’s frightening to be reminded how recently women’s lives were constrained (even by something as essential to them as the clothing they wore).

Sand’s trouser-wearing was in its way an act of revolution; at the very least, it was illegal. In the year 1800, a law had been passed forbidding women to wear them in public. This law is still in effect today, though of course ignored; but even in 1969 an attempt to overturn it failed…A culture struggling to redefine itself against the blood-soaked Place de la Revolution fixated on the female body as a tool for instilling certain values in the heart of the new Republic.

I was reminded when reading Elkin’s book of the “Reclaim the Night” campaign which came into existence in the 1970s, during the second wave of feminism and when I was just discovering the movement; and which is still in existence today. To a certain extent Elkin’s book doesn’t engage with the real issues of violence which can come a woman’s way if she’s out and about in the city; and ignores the streetwalking aspect of women’s lives when women are out there not just for the pleasure of ambling through the streets but as sex workers. It’s perhaps a middle-class conceit to wander the city streets to get to know a location when some of us would like just to be out there safely allowed to get from place to place without being hassled (or worse).

So, much as I enjoyed reading “Flaneuse”, I did have a few issues with it. There is a slight sense of the narrative flagging towards the end of the book and if I’m honest, although I loved the chapter on Martha Gellhorn (because she fascinates me) I felt that it did sit slightly anachronistically alongside the rest of the book. It read more as a case of someone flaneusing the world rather than a city, and the lack of focus tended to dilute the effect of Elkin’s story. Additionally, there were occasions when I would have found an index useful as the book has so many cultural references that there were times I wanted to go back and check them.

What do we see of a revolution after it’s gone? A better, world perhaps. Some changes in the structure of society. But not always – sometimes there’s no change at all.

However, parts of the book were fascinating; particularly the sections on Paris, one of which focused on the various revolutions which have shaken its streets over the centuries. That city is Elkin’s adopted home nowadays and her love for it certainly shone through in her narrative. It was also instructive to be reminded just how radical it can actually be to walk in some cities (mainly American), which seem to have been constructed solely for the use of the car.

…. it’s the centre of cities where women have been empowered, by plunging into the heart of them, and walking where they’re not meant to. Walking where other people (men) walk without eliciting comment. That is the transgressive act. You don’t need to crunch around in Gore-Tex to be subversive, if you’re a woman. Just walk out your front door.

“Flaneuse” is an interesting book which makes interesting points about women’s presence on the streets. I think it ultimately fails to go far enough in its discussion of the issues they’ve faced in the past and still face now, and whether this was a deliberate decision by the author or not I can’t tell. It’s certainly set me thinking about our relationship to our environment and also appreciate certain freedoms modern women have, compared with Sand and her ilk. However, the more I considered it and let it settle in my brain after I’d read it, the more I ended up feeling that it falls short of its intended aim. With more structure, more historical narrative and more focus on the very real issues women can face while out on the streets attempting to flaneuse, and perhaps a little less personal memoir, the book would have been much stronger. I’ve ended up sounding a bit more negative than I expected here, but I did enjoy reading “Flaneuse”; and if your local library stocks it that might be the best way to check it out and see how it works for you

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…in which a variety of Santas *do* bring books!

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After the recent birthday bonanza of books, I wasn’t necessarily expecting a huge book haul over the festive period. However, I was delighted to receive several gems and surprises, as well as a lovely Secret Santa – I’ve been very blessed with books recently!

First up, OH surprised me with some unexpected titles (as he always manages to!):

bright particular

This rather appealing sounding book is nothing I’ve ever heard of – but as I’ve not read a lot of non-fiction in 2014, it’ll be ideal for next year!

russian books

He also tracked down a couple of Russian titles – one I’d heard of and one I’d not. Fascinating fact of the season – I went to school with Catherine Merridale! She was in my form at Grammar School and ended up being our Head Girl – small world!

colette

Middle Child came up trumps with this lovely new Colette title. I put it on my wish list recently to try to restrain my buying impulses, so I was very excited that she chose this – thanks, MC!

george sand

This was from my lovely friend J. who decided it would be a Good Thing for me after I reviewed my first George Sand book earlier in the year. Translated by Robert Graves, no less! 🙂

humans covenant

These two lovelies came from a work colleague and an old friend – I know nothing about either but they sound varied and interesting so that’s got to be good!

plath drawings

And from mother-in-law (with a little help from OH I suspect!) Sylvia Plath’s drawings – very exciting!!!

Last, but most *definitely* not least is the Virago Secret Santa. On the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group some of us do a Secret Santa every year, and my wonderful gifts came from the lovely Genny T (who I’d been lucky enough to meet up with earlier in the year at a London get-together). The parcel arrived adorned intriguingly with tape quoting L.M. Alcott:

pkg 2

pkg 1

Inside were three beautiful packages wrapped in bookish paper plus a card:

vss parcels 1

vss parcels

The contents turned out to be as fabulous as the exterior!

vss2014

“Bid Me to Live” by HD is probably the Virago I’ve been most keen to find but have failed most miserably to get, so I was *so* excited to receive this! And the Persephone is “Flush” by Virginia Woolf which I also don’t have! The tape is emblazoned with a Woolf quote and as Genny surmised will come in very handy this year! I was bowled over by my lovely VSS gifts; they’re just perfect – thanks Genny!

So Mount TBR gets a little larger and creakier – I will *definitely* have to do more book pruning in the new year….. =:o

Recent Reads: Lavinia by George Sand

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When I was in my late teens/early twenties, and during my first flush of feminism, I came across a book that was to be pivotal in my development as a reader – “Literary Women” by Ellen Moers, a chunky blue volume published by The Women’s Press. The book was an eye-opener to an avid reader, full of information about a huge range of women writers I’d never heard of. At the back was a long checklist of writers and their books, which I credit with sending me off to read Virginia Woolf, Colette et al, and giving me a life-long love of those wonderful women. However, one of the writers covered was George Sand, a pioneering women from the past, and although I was keen to read her, the books just weren’t accessible at the time. So somehow I never got round to reading Sand – until now! One of her novellas, “Lavinia”, has just been published by Michael Walmer, who was kind enough to provide a review copy.

lavinia
Wikipedia tells us: “Amantine (also “Amandine”) Lucile Aurore Dupin  (1 July 1804 – 8 June 1876), best known by her pseudonym George Sand, was a French novelist and memoirist. She is also equally well-known for her much publicized romantic affairs with a number of celebrities including Frédéric Chopin and Alfred de Musset.”

Sand’s life was somewhat scandalous – in her taste for dressing in men’s clothing and reported lesbian affairs, she might be seen as a precursor of Colette – but I wanted to approach her work without preconceptions. I had always had the impression that her books were dense doorstops, so the fact that “Lavinia” is a novella of some 70 pages meant that it was probably the ideal volume to help me find my way into her work!

The Lavinia of the title is a well-bred Portuguese beauty, loved in her early youth by Sir Lionel Bridgemont, a wealthy young English rake. However, Lionel abandoned her ten years ago, and after a period travelling Europe and generally enjoying life, he has decided to settle down and is engaged to Margaret Ellis, a beautiful Englishwoman with a dowry. When Lavinia, having heard of his impending marriage, offers to meet with him so that they can return each other’s letters, Lionel cautiously agreed. Postponing an outing with Margaret, he heads off with his chatterbox friend Sir Henry to meet up with Lavinia for one final time. But how will their reunion go, and who will be the most emotionally affected?

For such a short book, “Lavinia” certainly delivers plenty of food for thought! This is a portrait of society people, living in a world where status is all and there are strict rules and regulations dictating conduct. As Lavinia was abandoned, she has never quite recovered her standing in society, despite an advantageous marriage to the older Lord Blake (now deceased). Despite her fortune, her title and her circle of admirers, there is still a stigma attached to her because of Lionel’s behaviour. He returns to her expecting emotion, expecting to be the dominant one of the pair, but he is shocked and surprised – Lavinia has matured, learned how to play the society game and control her emotions. It is Lionel who begins to behave in an irrational and unacceptable way, much to the alarm of Henry!

George_Sand_by_Nadar,_1864

This is a remarkably clever novella; Sand seems to delight in turning the tables on the arrogant Lionel, having him meet his match in the new Lavinia and being prepared to fall at her feet. However, Sand is a wise enough writer not to opt for the happy ending; she seems to celebrate passion and real emotions, recognising that Lavinia has had to crush her natural feelings so much to fit in that she can no longer love – and certainly not Lionel.

So my first George Sand book turned out to be a really enjoyable, thought-provoking read – Lavinia was a lovely, feisty heroine and if this is any guide to Sand’s writing, I want to read more!

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