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Roberta Buffi

Further information

About the author

Roberta Buffi graduated from the University of Florence and is currently writing a PhD at the University of Western Australia on contemporary Australian women writers.

Publication details

Volume 2, November 1996

The Body and the City – Three Cases of flâneuses in Contemporary Australian Women's Writing

Cities and sexualities both shape and are shaped by the dynamics of social life. They reflect the ways in which social life is organised, the ways in which it is represented, perceived and understood, and the ways in which various groups cope with and react to these conditions. The gender-based spatial divisions of labour characteristic of many cities, for example, both shape and are shaped by people's sexual lives ... (Knopp, 1995, 149).

In his insightful essay, Lawrence Knopp focuses on the pivotal role the city has acquired in modern and post-modern times, and highlights the diverse gender relationships which human bodies have to the urban environment. He goes on to say that

In a world ... in which spatiality and sexuality are fundamental experiences, and in which sexuality, race, class and gender have been constructed as significant axes of difference, it should come as no surprise that struggles organised around these differences feature prominently in a process like urbanisation (159).

With his argument, Knopp consolidates the view of feminist critics such as Susan Merrill Squier and Drusilla Modjeska who see the city as the arena through which women may voice their private experiences and negotiate their public lives. Squier maintains that "the city speaks fluently of woman's public and private life, of her literal and literary confinement in patriarchal models of experience, and of her struggle to win freedom from such constraints in life and art" (1984, 3), an issue Virginia Woolf explored in the late 1920s in A Room of One's Own (1984, 4).

As some women critics dealing with urban literature have remarked (Little, Peake and Richardson, 1988; Sizemore, 1994; Spain, 1992), the urban space has been strongly male-centred and evidence of this emerges in most Western fiction and poetry produced during the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Within the literature of modernity, for instance, a recurring character who wanders the streets of the city is the flâneur, a French figure which has no feminine counterpart. As Janet Wolff claims:

The dandy, the flâneur, the hero, the stranger – all figures invoked to epitomize the experience of modern life – are invariably male figures. In 1831, when George Sand wanted to experience Paris life and to learn about the ideas and arts of her time, she dressed as a boy, to give herself the freedom she knew women could not sham .... The disguise made the life of the flâneur available to her; as she knew very well, she could not adopt the non-existent role of a flâneuse (1990, 41).

Notwithstanding women's exclusion from the urban domain since Sand's furtive city experience, several women writers have challenged this historical marginalisation from the public sphere by creating female characters who reclaim their urban territory.

Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway and Christina Stead's Teresa Hawkins (For Love Alone), are arguably the first portrayals of modern women who enjoy a new freedom in the urban spaces of London and Sydney which they try to make "their own." Moreover, these female characters could be regarded as women writers who live in Australia, one of the most highly urbanised countries in the world. In her introduction to Inner Cities (1989), an anthology of writings by women centred on the city, Modjeska speaks of the conflicting relationships Australian women have with their urban environment, an ambivalent attitude which is mainly produced by the sense of living in a centreless universe. Women write about their cities, never avoiding the disturbing experiences and situations which derive from the position they occupy, both as women and as writers. As Modjeska states:

Women are practised on the peripheries. Our memories, our stories, like the ways we live, are formed in movement between inner and outer, past and future centre and margin, between the physical environment and the social world. We shape our cities, and reshape them from the edge, we always have; just as our cities shape us (2).

In their fiction, Australian women writers such as Janine Burke, Sara Dowse, Beverly Farmer, Helen Garner, Kate Grenville, Marion Halligan, Barbara Hanrahan and Brenda Walker, among others, shape their own urban constructs which provide their characters with a centre, both physically and intellectually, by creating a feminine language which voices women's distinctive relationship to the city.

In this essay, I will concentrate on three novels by contemporary Australian women writers: Burke's Second Sight (1986), Farmer's Alone (1980) and Grenville's Lilian's Story (1985), to illustrate how these texts re-appropriate urban spaces and negotiate the figure of the flâneuse within urban discourses by engaging with an écriture féminine which reconciles the female body to the city's spatiality.

In "The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity", Janet Wolff draws on Virginia Woolf's essays to explain the distinctive features of women's writing. She expounds:

For [Woolf], the "change in human character" and in literature seemed to offer real possibilities for women to break away from what she describes as "the sentence made by men " - loose, heavy, pompous. The woman writer, she says, must make her own sentence, "altering and adapting the current sentence until she writes one that takes the natural shape of her thought without crushing or distorting it" (1990, 52).

The "sentence made by women" proposed by Woolf has been elaborated further by French feminists such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray as écriture féminine which, as Wolff explains, "is writing grounded in women's experience of the body and sexuality, an experience which is not mediated by men and patriarchy" (132). In my discussion of these novels, I will argue that writing from/about the body is a process interrelated with that of writing from/about the city. In Burke's, Farmer's and Grenville's urban fictions, the female body and the city are two texts mediated by an écriture féminine which makes possible women's re-appropriation of the urban environment.

In Burke's Second Sight, Lucida feels decentred in a city which appears to her as illegible, ungraspable, for its tangle of obscure signs and abstract topographies. As she views the asphalt landscape from her aerial position, for instance, Lucida sees Melbourne as "a circle of tarmac covered with mysterious yellow diagrams" (35). The malaise of Burke's female protagonist is due to a double displacement: geographical and linguistic. Lucida perceives images as being supplanted from their original site; for her, in a decentred postmodern urban landscape, it is no longer possible to attribute a meaning to places and objects since patterns keep shifting. As Burke writes:

The faces and the voices of people I knew had become disconnected, insubstantial. Sense departed leaving eyes and mouths floating in space. I could not firm them. I was holding on to the parts of myself that seemed also in flight. The evening traffic, the trees the light had a clarity having nothing to do with reassurance It seemed each thing had been made over in a new way, represented in a chaotic, accidental design. I sat at the traffic lights (18-19).

Lucida constantly tries to make sense of an urban environment which is affected by a creeping decay. She looks for words to convey her conflicting relationship with the city, and at times she recurs to metaphors which are embedded in corporeality, as the following passage suggests: "[T]he morning sky was pearly, an inverted shell shimmering with clouds. Towards the airport the earth stretched flat as an arm exhausted before the embrace" (33).

On wandering the streets of Melbourne, Burke's female protagonist voices her response to the urban landscape by projecting onto it her bodily impulses. The urban picture which Burke creates is heavy with thick colours and unreal outlines which convey Lucida's desolate inner landscape and mark thus her distinctive female perception of the city. In Second Sight, Melbourne is portrayed as alienating, undecipherable, at times threatening but ultimately attractive; it is a place formed by a series of layers which Burke's female protagonist has to dig and re-order, as in ancient Troy or Rome, and over which she may eventually spread her own map. At the end of her journey, when Lucida has gained insight into her inner self and realized the necessity to use a new kind of writing to tell the story of Lydia O'Shea - a utopian socialist of the turn of the century - she says: 'I would travel light, making maps" (109).

In his essay, Knopp quotes Elizabeth Wilson and argues that:

... densely populated urban spaces [are] potentially liberating and empowering for women. For this reason such spaces am often associated ideologically with women's sexualities, which are in turn constructed ideologically as irrational, uncontrollable and dangerous. Thus the control of "disorder" in the city is seen by Wilson as very much about the control of women, and particularly women's sexualities (1995, 159).

Within patriarchal discourse, the city has been described sometimes as "a female space to be mastered ..., a space in which actual women are often rigorously controlled" as William Chapman Sharpe has remarked (1990, 9). In Farmer's Alone, Shirl tries to disentangle herself from a male-dominated urban environment; she walks and cycles incessantly around the streets of Melbourne and attempts to set right in her city. Michel de Certeau maintains that walking the streets is the first pedestrian speech act:

The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered. At the most elementary level, it has a triple "enunciative" function: it is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian (just as the speaker appropriates and takes on the language); and it implies relations among differentiated positions, that is, among pragmatic "contracts" in the form of movements ... It thus seems possible to give a preliminary definition of walking as a space of enunciations (1984, 97-98).

Farmer's flâneuse retains a strong link with the city, especially at night, when in the silence and emptiness of the urban landscape she can feel it pulsating as if it were a human body which reaches for the bodies of its inhabitants. She writes:

Jammed, I shove my way inside and stand swaying from a strap. Jutting from shadow, my own yellow-lit brow and nose shift and slide in the rattling window. Mouths and eyes jerk and slit, contort, droop, fade against passing streetlamps congeal in silent glass. Throbbing, the tram barges on, cars at its side and along its wake and darting past, and sways through streets of lit high windows and dark windows flashing back its golden segments (61).

To depict the urban environment, Farmer often borrows from a terminology associated with the female body and to its physiological functions. She describes the river as "tumid", its water "red" (21) as if it were blood; she depicts the moon as a "yellow bladder [which] swells, spills shrivelling over the water" (1). The metaphors which Farmer employs are characterized by an écriture féminine. Xavier Pons has pointed out:

Much of the personal experience that Farmer transmutes into fiction has to do with the body, with living in the flesh. [In Alone] the body becomes a kind of work of art, enhanced by carefully constructed light effects ("dark"/lamplit"; "tawn": "glows" "gold ") which add to the sensuousness of the scene The narrator offers the sight of her body to the reader in the manner of a painter proudly displaying his/her canvas (1995, 142).

In Alone, Shirl's body and the cityscape of Melbourne are exposed under the same light and produced within the same semantic field; the body as text and the city as text are two discursive practices which intersect constantly. Pons argues that:

... the body, in [Farmer's] perspective, is not meant for intercourse of any kind. Whenever it is the site of a social experience, the latter turns out to be negative: it amounts to "things being done to the body (by a clumsy lover, a rapist, a surgeon, etc.) rather than a sharing. As we shall see, the body often opens onto the world, but seldom onto other people (143).

In my view, Shirl's body opens especially onto the urban world in which it is firmly grounded. "I plunge on to the street" say Shirl (66), and later in the narration she describes the grin "fourmillante cite."

I plot on along street after street to the row of shabby terraces their lacy balconies aglow behind the streetlamp ... The wick is a black seed on its lucent, white-flowering stalk. By its double light I hoist up the window and lean out to listen to the cool City hum and rustle under far streetlamps like vased flames (79, 82)

The city is also crucial in Grenville's Lilian's Story. Greenville's female protagonist, Lilian Una (based on the real figure of Bea Miles, one of the city's first "bag ladies") is a flâneuse who roams the streets of Sydney giving recitals of Shakespeare for a shilling. Marie Christine Hubert claims:

[Lilian's] decision to take to the streets is a matter of choice rather than of economic necessity. Once she has taken the decision, however, she makes Sydney hers. From a fat adolescent she grows into an enormous woman, producing enough flesh (figuratively) to encompass the city, and she manages to give Sydney-siders the impression that she is everywhere simultaneously (1992, 180).

Lilian's massive corporeal presence merges with the landmarks, sounds and secret music of the urban environment:

The hollow clatter of metal shrouds against the masts of all those quiet boats was like music across the water, random, endless, soothing ... Like the lives of people, the music of the masts was something complicated and mysterious and composed of the clearest and most simple threads ... Down at the sea wall I sat swinging my feet and watching the life of things resume ( 163).

Lilian is not an invisible flâneuse; in the streets of Sydney, she does not go unobserved. Her gargantuan body is towering and cannot be ignored by passers-by. And in many ways, Lilian's "grotesque" corporeality insists on women's presence within a male-centred city which often neglects the public lives of women. It is also for her conspicuous body that Lilian becomes a wellknown figure in Sydney and her private story gradually enters the public history of the city. The city then becomes the place which offers Lilian the chance of being part of history: it is the public arena in which she can negotiate her position as a woman. Being part of the city means contributing to the construction of the present and the making of history. As Lilian herself claims, "History is not the past but the present made flesh" (192). At the end of Grenville's novel, it is Lilian's presence that brings together bodily, historical and spatial texts:

I fill myself now, and look with pity on those hollow men in their suits, those hollow women in their classic navy and white. They have not made themselves up from their presents and pasts, but have let others do it for them, while I, large and plain, frightening to them and sometimes to myself have taken the past and the sent into myself (210).

In Flesh and Stone - The Body and the City in Western Civilization (1976), Richard Sennett emphasises the interaction between the city and the human body. He writes that:

The geography of the modern city, like modern technology, brings to the fore deep seated problems in Western civilization in imagining spaces for the human body which might make human bodies aware of one another ... The bodily contradictions and ambivalences aroused by the collective master image have expressed themselves in Western cities through the alternations and smudges of urban form and the subverting uses of urban space. And it is this necessary contradictoriness and fragmenting of "the human body" in urban space which has helped to generate the rights of, and to dignify, differing human bodies
(21, 24).

The novels I have discussed suggest that the city is a site in which women negotiate their private and public lives. They do so through the notion of écriture féminine to convey both the specificity of the female body and the distinctive relationship it has with the urban environment. It is through the voicing of this mediation that these women writers encourage the visibility of their flâneuses around the streets of Australian cities.


1. Squier considers Woolf's A Room of One's Own as "the first serious study of the experience of women writers [which] prompts consideration of the specifically female aspects of urban experience."

Works Cited

Burke, Janine. Second Sight. Richmond, Victoria: Greenhouse, 1986.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. (trans. Steven P. Rendall). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Farmer, Beverley. Alone. Ringwood, Victoria: McPhee Gribble, 1980.

Grenville, Kate. Lilian's Story. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1985.

Hubert, Marie Christine. "Larger Than Life: Lilian, Teresa and Rosa in Sydney" in Oriana Palusci (ed), La città delle Donne. Torino: Tirrenia Stampatori, 1992.

Knopp, Lawrence. "Sexuality and Urban Space: A Framework for Analysis" in David Bell and Gillian Valentine (eds), Mapping Desire - Geographies of Sexuality. London: Routledge, 1995. pp.l49-159.

Little, Jo; Peake, Linda; Richardson, Pat (eds). Women in Cities - Gender and the Urban Environment. London: Macmillan Education, 1988.

Modjeska, Drusilla. "Introduction" in Drusilla Modjeska (ed), Inner Cities. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books, 1989. pp.l-3.

Pons, Xavier. "Dramatising the Self: Beverley Farmer's Fiction." Australian Literary Studies 17 2 (October 1995), 141-148.

Sennett, Richard. Flesh and Stone - The Body and the City in Western Civilization. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976.

Sharpe, William Chapman. Unreal Cities. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Sizemore, Christine W. "The 'Outsider-Within': Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing as Urban Novelists in Mrs Dalloway and The Four-Gated City," in Ruth Saxton and Jean Tobin (eds), Woolf and Lessing - Breaking the Mold. New York: St Martin's Press, 1994. pp.59-72.

Spain, Daphne. Gendered Spaces. Chapel Hill: The University' of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Squier, Susan Merill. "Introduction" in Susan Merrill Squier (ed), Women Writers and the City, Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1984. pp.3-8.

Wolff, Janet. Feminine Sentences. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990.

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