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Claiming the Flâneur’s Body: Cross-Dressing Women, Autobiographical Self-Fashioning, and the Pleasures of Passing and Not Passing as a Man on the Street

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender book series (PSRG)

Abstract

The experience of flânerie, associated primarily with urban capitals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is often seen as hinging on a male, upper-class, white, and able body. In Western patriarchy these bodily privileges supposedly allow the flâneur to remain unnoticed whilst observing others. Questioning the exclusiveness of these privileges, Sandra Dinter’s analysis explores how the European women writers Flora Tristan, George Sand, and Vita Sackville-West attempt to claim male corporeality by walking publicly in male disguise and representing this experience in their memoirs. Dinter’s perceptive reading demonstrates that both moments—passing and not passing—generate pleasure for the women and serve as distinct occasions for their autobiographical self-fashionings. These representations to different degrees undermine or reinstate patriarchal norms, thus inviting both paranoid and reparative perspectives on flânerie.

Keywords

  • Autobiography
  • Cross-dressing
  • Flâneur
  • Passing
  • Walking body

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For an overview of the flâneur’s different facets and appearances, see Wilson (2001).

  2. 2.

    Many critics have challenged Wolff’s claim that flâneuses did not exist. Elizabeth Wilson, for example, argues that Wolff accepts at face value the nineteenth-century ideology of separate spheres and thus underestimates women’s roles outside the home (2001, 79). While critics like Nava (1996), Parsons (2000), and Wilson (2001) acknowledge that male pedestrians enjoyed exclusive privileges, they point to ways in which women have moved in public space beyond the narrow paradigm of flânerie.

  3. 3.

    For studies of debates about street harassment in the Victorian press, see Walkowitz (1998) and Nead (2000, 62–73).

  4. 4.

    For two contemporary accounts of the experiences of black pedestrians, see Cadogan (2016) and Forna (2018).

  5. 5.

    There is little research on flânerie and age. For an article on the flâneur as an adult that considers the possibility of a child flâneur, see Tribunella (2010).

  6. 6.

    Sackville-West’s gender identity was more ambiguous and fluid than Tristan’s and Sand’s, as I show further on in this article. Yet Sackville-West is usually not referred to as transgender.

  7. 7.

    Lynda Chouiten also mentions Willa Cather, Dorothy Richardson, Sidonie-Gabrielle Claudine Colette, Rosa Bonheur, and Sarah Bernhardt as female artists who regularly cross-dressed in Britain and France (2015, 99). For a survey of modernist female cross-dressers, see Gubar (1981).

  8. 8.

    Sarah Richardson clarifies that although women had been excluded from the House of Commons from 1778 onwards, this did not mean that no women were ever present in the building. In the early nineteenth century, “[a] limited number of women were permitted to attend the House and listen to debates in what became known as the ventilator or lantern – a small attic space high above the chamber” (2019, 122). Tristan does not mention this in her Journal. However, Richardson asserts that it is unclear when this practice was introduced (122). It may not yet have been common practice when Tristan visited London. Moreover, it is possible that Tristan was not aware of this option or chose not to mention it. In 1852, a new House of Commons was opened that included a ladies’ gallery (127).

  9. 9.

    Epstein Nord proposes that “[t]hrough a kind of mystification of the Oriental, Tristan welcomes the robes’ accentuation of her otherness and senses that they lend her a kind of serenity and control. […] [S]he is now more foreign, more exotic, more mysterious than before, and her feelings of virtuous indignation increase accordingly” (1995, 120).

  10. 10.

    Perhaps her failed passing is even a calculated act. Tristan mentions, for example, that her costume “was much too big and I felt uncomfortable in it” (1982, 59), which suggests that she suspects that passing for a man is rather unlikely.

  11. 11.

    This passage contrasts with her description of walking along in Paris in women’s clothing, which makes her feel insecure and impractical: “But on the pavements of Paris I was like a boat on ice. Delicate footwear cracked in two days; overshoes made me clumsy; I wasn’t used to lifting my skirts. I was muddy, tired, runny-nosed, and I saw my shoes and clothing – not to mention the little velvet hat – spattered in the gutters, falling into ruin with frightening rapidity” (Sand 1991, 892).

  12. 12.

    As Georgia Johnston clarifies, the publication of the memoir is problematic, for Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, edited his mother’s writing, and added to the book three sections of his own to assess his parents’ marriage. According to Johnston, Nicolson not only “buries the lesbian question” (2007, 60) and blames his mother for the turbulent marriage (61), but also omits crucial information, for instance, “that the affair with Violet begins five months after Nicolson may have contracted venereal disease […] and that Nicolson continued to have affairs, which Sackville-West countenanced” (61).

  13. 13.

    For a nuanced discussion of Sackville-West’s sexual identity, see Kaivola (1999). Since it is beyond the scope of this contribution to explore this issue in greater detail, I refer to Sackville-West as ‘lesbian or bisexual’, suggesting that both options are possible.

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Dinter, S. (2022). Claiming the Flâneur’s Body: Cross-Dressing Women, Autobiographical Self-Fashioning, and the Pleasures of Passing and Not Passing as a Man on the Street. In: Dexl, C., Gerlsbeck, S. (eds) The Male Body in Representation. Palgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-88604-2_8

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