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Another instalment in the rubric ‘spotting insidious Victorian patriarchy in modern-day society’.

As part of my wonderfully diverse degree, I have recently been doing some work on the Victorian city, which has raised again the age-old question, ‘Can the flâneur be female?’ As a new Londoner and avid (nocturnal) walker, this question soon took on a personal aspect for me – because the answer, nowadays as well as in the time of Baudelaire, is no.

That is not to say it is impossible for lone women to walk through London at night: we can, and indeed we must. And this, of course, was the case for many Victorian women as well: if you worked the insane hours of a sweatshop, for example, you had no choice but to make your way home through dark and unsafe streets. But to argue this would be to miss the point, which is that women do not walk the streets on an equal basis with men (and the pun on streetwalking here is a tragic illustration).

That the streets have yet to be reclaimed always becomes more obvious in the wake of holidays such as New Year’s, when it is once more brought to public attention that the various ‘stay safe’ tips well-meaningly dispensed by police and other institutions – don’t walk home alone after dark, and if you do, let someone know where you’re going etc. etc. etc. – just don’t always apply. Laura Bates of the EverydaySexism project, in her article for the Guardian on the stories shared under the hashtag #ShoutingBack, describes an incident of sexual harassment: ‘Although the police were supportive, the male officer said: “Usually I’d tell you to avoid walking around on your own late at night, but, you know – New Year’s. You have to get home somehow.”’ Yes, we do; and the fact that something as simple as going out with friends and returning home at the end of the night can be such a terrifying experience clearly shows that the streets are not a safe place for women.

This view of the streets is strongly reinforced by the very literature that celebrates the cityscape. I do enjoy reading Baudelaire, but running through his glorious lines and entrancing descriptions is always a sense of owning not only the city and its sights, but its women. The flâneur is a voyeur, and a beautiful woman lays herself open to his gaze simply by being out on the streets. In Ernst van Altena’s Flemish translation of Jacques Brel’s song ‘Le Plat Pays’ (‘Mijn Vlakke Land’), the very line, ‘En elke Vlaamse vrouw flaneert in zonjapon’, which casts Flemish women as flâneuses, immediately links itself to the inescapable male gaze by making the girls in their summer dresses as part of the landscape to be admired.

Arguably, the nearest approach in literature to a female character acting as a masculine flâneur is made by Jean Rhys in Good Morning, Midnight. The protagonist, Sasha, is independent in Paris, visiting her favourite haunts with reference only to her own inclination. She is the same isolated figure in a crowd as Baudelaire, with the same fascination and melancholy – yet with Sasha, this melancholy has a very real basis in the horrific memories of her past which the city evokes. Thus, the city always has her at a disadvantage – even when she withdraws to her hotel, even when she picks up a gigolo, she is subject to the gazes, lusts and judgments of the men around her, with the city as a looming threat. Her way of coping with these judgmental gazes, furthermore, smacks strongly of ‘Au Bonheur des dames’: reinventing herself with new clothes and dyed hair, she retreats from the masculine arcades to the relative safety (though this, too, is fraught with judgment) of the feminine department store. Even in the liberated atmosphere of the interbellum, Sasha cannot attain the freedom and detachment of the nineteenth-century male flâneur exploring the city at his leisure and taking it as it comes.

And this is a terrible deprivation, because the city at night can be a beautiful thing. The beauty of ‘one of the most cheerful things a city can do when the sun goes down, which is to wink its lights on one by one’ (Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five) should not be fraught with anxieties to such an extent that we are no longer able to enjoy it.