Examine the figure of the female flâneuse in Virginia Woolf’s work, with particular focus on Mrs Dalloway.

Introduction

The term ‘flâneuse’ can be attributed to females who engage in flânerie: the act of observing the city whilst walking.[1] They know themselves to be one of the public, yet they are the binary opposite to the engaged pedestrian – they are a passive spectator.[2] Until the latter half of the nineteenth century, flânerie was an exclusively male activity due to the dangers of walking through streets teeming with male predators.[3] However, with the expansion of the high street and the wider inclusion of women into the employment sphere during men’s absence in the home during the First World War, the female flâneuse became a viable concept; one which Virginia Woolf embraced and used as inspiration for her writing.[4] Russian painter Marie Bashkirseff rightly established a link between walking and artwork, particularly in an urban setting.[5] Woolf’s literature and journals are a clear example of this, providing a social commentary of what it’s like to live in London. Her writing acted as a struggle for survival against depression until her tragic suicide, with her diary revealing her interest in the social side of London and the desire to grasp modern conditions.[6] Clarissa is arguably a fictional representation of Woolf, providing a platform that allows her to temporarily escape her own mind, almost as if she were afraid to live fully outside fiction.[7] Her exploration of the city in an imaginary dimension through the eyes of the fictional flâneuse simultaneously builds on, and yet distances herself from her personal experiences. Much like the act of flânerie, this is a way of shedding one’s identity upon closing the front door, and becoming anonymous by delving into the minds of passing pedestrians or reaching into the interior of a stranger’s house.[8] Virginia Woolf uses the flâneuse as a technique to explore the progression of modernity in London. The inclusion of the flâneuse (alongside the flâneur) highlights the changing ideas towards Middle Class women and their prosperity, as they are opened to new possibilities – yet they are not entirely emancipated.

Main Text

The primary function of the flâneuse in Mrs Dalloway is to aid our understanding of London, the city which soon became the ‘passion of [Woolf’s] life’.[9] Through Clarissa, Woolf is showing the reader (who is quite possibly absent from the city setting) how different areas relate to each other, and how these places relate to the people occupying them in an attempt to comprehend the ever-changing space.[10] Woolf has absorbed the urban spectacle that is London and has transformed this into a vibrant, bustling and blooming fictional account, by taking into consideration the sensory impact of the city.[11] In the opening of Mrs Dalloway, through the eyes of Clarissa, Woolf tells us of the ‘bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs;’[12] The decision to list this cacophony of noise suggests that Clarissa (and Woolf) are nostalgic for the quieter and slower city they once knew; in Clarissa’s case this is a pre-war London before the emergence of popular transport and the high street whilst Woolf reminisces over her time living in rural Surrey. The traffic inhabiting London’s streets was a focus of Woolf’s diary entries, with her often having watched ‘the omnibuses going and coming’. From this we can infer that the flânerie conducted in Mrs Dalloway is reminiscent of Woolf’s own excursions.[13] Woolf’s in-depth descriptions perfectly capture the essence of London’s bustling streets. This can be cross referenced with visual sources such as The Open Road, a film clip from 1926 showing bus after bus pass the lens, and Charles Ginner’s Piccadilly Circus painting which shows a similar scene from 1912.[14] Given that this description of the city appears to be accurate, we can assume that Woolf is reliably depicting the sights and sounds of London in the 1920s, creating a realistic setting for her work of fiction through the eyes of the flâneuse.

          Woolf explores the newfound excitement for London’s (then) modern public transport further through the character of Elizabeth; for her, the buses are alive. Woolf uses a continuous metaphor of a pirate upon a ship, ‘reckless, unscrupulous, bearing down ruthlessly…boldly snatching a passenger, or ignoring a passenger’ to describe the picking up and setting down of pedestrians.[15] This description is in some respects more interesting and important than a photographic or video source which only captures the fact that the popular use of modern transport had sprung into existence. Woolf’s decision to focus upon Elizabeth’s experience of riding upon one of these buses shows provides a sensory experience and tells us of the possible reactions transport provoked – fear, excitement, and wonder, which would be absent from visual sources such as The Open Road or Piccadilly Circus. The fact that Woolf, Ginner and videographers have created creative pieces using London’s traffic scenes at similar times, suggests that this was a popular scene for the flâneuse, perhaps due to its novelty and noise making it impossible to ignore. The surroundings of the journey prompt and amplify Elizbeth’s thoughts, creating a fast pace flicking from the thoughts of sick people to potential careers.[16] Through the flânerie of Elizabeth, Virginia Woolf projects London’s atmosphere in an aura of excitement and pure joy. Woolf’s attention to the sensory experience and small details in Mrs Dalloway, proves her diary’s testimony that London is her prime stimulant for writing.[17]

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, flânerie was an activity reserved exclusively for elite males who were privileged enough to be free from the responsibilities of a wage-earning profession, giving them time to take aimless walks and observe their surroundings in their leisure time.[18] Women’s presence on the street was restricted, as a lone woman who engaged in streetwalking would be mistaken for a prostitute.[19] To an extent, whilst set after this period, the view that these women are seen purely as objects of male flânerie is still present in Mrs Dalloway. This is evident when Peter Walsh follows a ‘young girl’, ‘across Piccadilly, and up Regent Street, ahead of him’. The description focuses on the feminine figure and alluring clothing: ‘her cloak, her gloves, [and] her shoulders’.[20] Whilst this is a third person narrative, Woolf manages to project the focuses of a male gaze, separating the flâneur from the flâneuses. It can be argued that the inclusion of flânerie conducted in a voyeuristic manner is Woolf’s way of criticising society, as the female flâneuse is still endangered by male predators. This suggests that Woolf has given Clarissa and Elizabeth the possession of a unique confidence for streetwalking within the male public sphere.[21] Arguably the walks of these female characters are symbolic of the marches of the Suffragettes, whose activity Virginia Woolf was living in the centre of, with the WSPU and NUWSS headquarters also being in Bloomsbury.[22] Mrs Dalloway and her daughter therefore are symbolic of female empowerment, walking where they weren’t meant to before and transgressing from social normal. However, Elizabeth still holds a degree of wariness whilst roaming the streets, as she ‘dare [not] wander off into queer alleys’.[23]

Before the First World War, society was sexually segregated.[24] Women were restricted to venturing into particular areas of the city; they unable to walk alone in Piccadilly or the West End due to personal safety risks.[25] World War One saw the reduction the male presence in society which dramatically changed the social and economic demographic. Woolf refers to this context in Mrs Dalloway when she brushes over the grief of Mrs Foxcroft and Lady Bexborough who have suffered wartime losses.[26] The absence of men on the streets alongside the rise of consumerism created an opening of possibility for the flâneuse. Department stores with their ‘hat shops, dress shops, shops with leather bags in the window’, cinemas and tea rooms, all legitimised middle-class women’s presence as semi-safe public spaces had been created for their utilisation.[27] Woolf presents us with two contrasting versions of this new female flâneuse through mother and daughter. Clarissa and Elizabeth highlight generational divide as Clarissa represents traditional values within a modernizing society, whilst the youthful Elizabeth embraces the new world. Considering that Woolf attributes domestic purpose to her own and Clarissa’s walks, such as buying a pencil or bunch of flowers, it’s clear that she feels that women’s presence in the street (and therefore their flânerie) must be justified by fulfilling duties as a wife or mother alongside it.[28] In contrast to Clarissa’s slight reservations, seen through the need to excuse her behaviour, Elizabeth’s mind races through all the possibilities of becoming a ‘farmer’, ‘doctor’, or ‘possibly go into Parliament if she found it necessary, all because of the Strand.’ ‘In the short she would like to have a profession.’[29]  These are typical thoughts of post-war young women, the period in which Mrs Dalloway is set, as women’s work continued to shift from the domestic sphere towards a newfound independence outside of the home, and the desire to continue the skilled factory work they had enjoyed during the war.[30] Through these thoughts provoked by flânerie whilst sat upon a bus, Woolf is presenting London as a place of opportunities as opposed to the one of restriction during the Victorian period; this is particularly thrilling for the younger generation who wish to immerse themselves in it as Elizabeth does, whereas Clarissa is more nostalgic and struggles to understand these rapid social and demographic changes. Ultimately, through the figure of the female flâneuse Woolf is showing the transcendence of female constraints and redraws the boundaries between the city and the home, allowing them some emancipation from domesticity.[31] The purpose of highlighting voyeurism alongside the confident flâneuses fulfils Woolf’s intention of criticising the gendered system of the time, gesturing towards a need for social change by presenting the eve of women’s independence as being something that should be anticipated with enthusiasm.[32]

Whilst the flâneuse highlights a step towards social change and can be commended for presenting an extensive sensory experience in London, this approach is biased as Woolf and her characters are from the upper middle classes. They are therefore unlikely to walk the East end streets suffering from poverty and the people struggling to compete in a time of mass unemployment, particularly for the dockworkers; these areas were dirty and overcrowded and teeming with and pubs and brothels.[33] It would also be unrealistic for these characters to walk such a distance, with no purpose other than the sake of conveying the poorer population. Wolf cannot be blamed for wanting to focus purely on the glamour and appeal of the areas the characters in Mrs Dalloway explore, as the work of fiction must appeal to like-minded people whilst also providing escapism for those worse off; it is after all a form of entertainment and was never intended to become a historical source for London’s history. Clarissa’s character is certainly living in a bubble of solipsism, in which her only focus is her forthcoming party, until she is made conscious of others upon seeing the old woman from a nearby house through the window and realises that other people are living too.[34] This shows just how ignorant of the disadvantaged Clarissa is, and suggests that she deliberately avoids walking and observing areas that are not as aesthetically glamourous as she is.  On the other hand, considering the risks the flâneuse faces in a male dominated city, perhaps Woolf deemed exploring these areas could be a risk to her personal safety and would therefore chose to sacrifice their inclusion instead of inaccurately describing a place she had no understanding of. Nevertheless, Woolf’s decision to ignore an important geographic and demographic section of the London setting restricts the reliability of the novel as a source, as it fails to paint a wholesome picture of London; it is with the benefit of historical perspective that we are aware of London’s simultaneous disadvantages at this point in time.

          Furthermore, the validity of the flâneuse in Mrs Dalloway must be questioned due to its nature of escapism. In her essay Street Haunting, Woolf states that flânerie allows for one to be able to penetrate ‘into [peoples’] lives… a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others’. This means that the thoughts and feelings attributed to the pedestrians who are the subject of Elizabeth’s flânerie are not necessarily true, there is an amount of educated guesswork based on the appearance of these businessmen. She assumes that the minds of ‘those people busy about their activities’ are ‘eternally occupied not with trivial chatterings…but with thoughts of ships, of business, of law, of administration’.[35] Whilst these people are probably associated with such professions based on the area (the Strand) and their behaviour, it would be unfair to imply that business people do not enjoy engagement ‘trivial chatterings’ in addition to thoughts concerning their careers. Here Woolf has attributed these pedestrians meaning based on her own prejudices.[36] This is ironic as Woolf believes that ‘to escape is the greatest of pleasures,’ however through Elizabeth’s flânerie, her beliefs are amplified in her imagining the thoughts of others, therefore flânerie doesn’t allow total escape from oneself.[37] We must also question the reliability of Woolf’s description of architecture and décor as she often enjoyed ‘standing out in the street [and] build[ing] up all the chambers of a vast imaginary house and furnish[ing] them.’[38] For this reason we can criticise the use of the flâneuse as a historical source in Mrs Dalloway as the imaginary element of flânerie warns us that we must take their thoughts with caution, especially when coupled with the author’s middle class bias. On the other hand, whilst we should be wary as this is a fictional novel, several of the observational scenes are rewritten from Woolf’s diary, in which she wonders about the people she saw, capturing their quirky sounds and movements. For instance, the beggar woman who is an object of Peter’s flânerie appears in an entry from 8th June 1920.[39] It can be argued then, that the flânerie conducted throughout Mrs Dalloway is at least an expression of the reality she experienced, if not a generalisable one.[40]

Conclusion

In conclusion, the function of the flâneuse in Mrs Dalloway, and of Virginia Woolf herself across her diaries and essays, is to provide a platform in which the exploration of the progression towards modernity in London, can be achieved. The flâneuse’s narrative creates a vivid description of London, with in depth sensory and emotional experiences adding more value to the source than visual sources or non-fiction texts. Whilst using fiction as a historical source must be questioned due to its imaginative nature, given that Woolf’s fictitious descriptions of London’s setting corroborate with both her diary entries and other visual sources, we can be certain that this is an accurate account. The text is however degraded in its worth as the flânerie conducted by Woolf and her female characters is biased towards areas in which middle class women were accepted, therefore a large section of London is left out of the novel. Although arguably, Woolf’s ignorance of these inferior conditions is perhaps a better alternative to creating inaccurate versions of slum areas. As the narrative relies on the observations of the middle class, her reality is at least presented, even if a general overview of London isn’t carried over. The novel would not benefit from exploring poorer areas from an entertainment point of view, and therefore shouldn’t be criticised for this as it was never intended to be used as a source for historians. Ultimately, Woolf uses the flâneuse to advocate social change by presenting independent women as a prospect society should be embracing and encouraging. Whilst her characters’ flânerie shows that a step towards this has been taken by more confident women, Woolf acknowledges that women’s emancipation is still yet to be achieved as they require domestic justification for their presence on the street.

Bibliography

Texts:

Benjamin, Anna, S. ‘Towards an Understanding of the Meaning of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway’, Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 6, No. 2. (Summer, 1965).

Caramagno, Thomas C. ‘Manic-Depressive Psychosis and Critical Approaches to Virginia Woolf’s Life and Work’, PMLA Vol. 103, No. 1 (1988).

Elkin, Lauren. Flâneuse: Women Walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London (London: Vintage, 2017).

Manley, Lawrence, ed. ‘London and Modern Prose 1900-50’ in Cambridge Companion to Literature of London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Rachman, Shalom. ‘Clarissa’s Attic: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway Reconsidered’, 20th Century Literature Vol. 18, No.1, (1972).

Seed, John. ‘Limehouse Blues: Looking for Chinatown in the London Docks, 1900–40’, History Workshop Journal, Issue 62 (2006).

Squier, Susan Merril. Virginia Woolf and London; the Sexual Politics of the City, (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Suárez, Isabel Carrera. ‘The Stranger Flâneuese and the Aesthetics of Pedestrianism’, Inteventions 17:6 (2015)

Tester, Keith. ed., The Flâneur (London: Routledge, 1994).

Tseng, Ching-Fang. ‘The Flâneur, The Flâneuse, and the Hostess: Virginia Woolf’s (Un)Domesticating Flânerie in Mrs Dalloway’, Literary and Cultural Studies 32.1, (2006).

Woolf, Virginia. A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. by Leonard Woolf, (USA: Harcout Inc., 1954).

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1996).

Woolf, Virginia. ‘London: A Street Haunting’ in Selected Essays, ed. by David Bradshaw, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Websites:

The Guardian, ‘A Tribute to Female Flâneurs: the Women who Reclaimed our City Streets’, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/jul/29/female-flaneur-women-reclaim-streets [accessed: 3/12/17]

Images:

Ginner, Charles. Piccadilly Circus (1912) available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/ginner-piccadilly-circus-t03096 [accessed:19/12/17]

Videos:

London Screen Archive, The Open Road (1926), available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwahIQz0o-M (2009)

 


[1] Keith Tester, ed., The Flâneur (London: Routledge, 1994), p.1.

[2] Isabel Carrera Suárez, ‘The Stranger Flâneuese and the Aesthetics of Pedestrianism’, Inteventions 17:6 (2015), p.856

[3] Rob Shields, in Tester, ed. The Flâneur, p.66.

[4] Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London (London: Vintage, 2017), p.20.

[5] The Guardian, ‘A Tribute to Female Flâneurs: the Women who Reclaimed our City Streets’, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/jul/29/female-flaneur-women-reclaim-streets [accessed: 3/12/17].

[6] Susan Merril Squier, Virginia Woolf and London; the Sexual Politics of the City, (University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Tester, p.1; Thomas C. Caramagno, ‘Manic-Depressive Psychosis and Critical Approaches to Virginia Woolf’s Life and Work’, PMLA Vol. 103, No. 1 (1988), p.10.

[7] Caramagno, p.10.

[8] Virginia Woolf, ‘London: A Street Haunting’ in Selected Essays, ed. by David Bradshaw, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.177.

[9] Elkin, p.73.

[10] Elkin, pp. 3-6.

[11] Leo Mellor, ‘London and Modern Prose 1900-50’ in Cambridge Companion to Literature of London, ed. by Lawrence Manley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p.205.

[12] Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, p.4.

[13] Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. by Leonard Woolf, (USA: Harcout Inc., 1954), p.61.

[14] London Screen Archive, The Open Road (1926), available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwahIQz0o-M (2009); Charles Ginner, Piccadilly Circus (1912) available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/ginner-piccadilly-circus-t03096 [accessed:19/12/17].

[15] Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, p.99.

[16] Squier, p.95.

[17] Elkin, p.69.

[18] Stefan Morawski, in Tester, ed. The Flâneur, p.183; Elkin, p.3.

[19] Elkin, p.8.

[20] Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, p.40.

[21] Squier, p.104.

[22] Elkin, p.78.

[23] Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, p.100.

[24] Squier, p.93.

[25]Ching-Fang Tseng, ‘The Flâneur, The Flâneuse, and the Hostess: Virginia Woolf’s (Un)Domesticating Flânerie in Mrs Dalloway’, Literary and Cultural Studies 32.1, (2006), pp.228-231.

[26] Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, p.4.

[27] Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, p.66; Elkin, p.20.

[28] Tseng, p.247.

[29] Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, p.99.

[30] Elkin, p.20.

[31] Tseng, pp. 221-3.

[32] Shalom Rachman, ‘Clarissa’s Attic: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway Reconsidered’, 20th Century Literature Vol. 18, No.1, (1972), p.4; Merry M. Pawlowski, ‘Introduction’ in Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, p.xviii.

[33]  John Seed, ‘Limehouse Blues: Looking for Chinatown in the London Docks, 1900–40’, History Workshop Journal, Issue 62 (2006) pp.59-61.

[34] Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, p.135.

[35] Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, pp.99-100.

[36] Tester, p.6.

[37] Woolf, Street Haunting, p.187.

[38] Woolf, Street Haunting, p.181.

[39] Elkin, pp.84-5.

[40]Anna S. Benjamin, ‘Towards an Understanding of the Meaning of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway’, Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 6, No. 2, p.214.

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