This book provides an account of the University of Manchester's struggle to meet the government's demands for the rapid expansion of higher education in the 1950s and the 1960s. It looks at the University's ambitious building programme: the controversial attempts to reform its constitution and improve its communications amid demands for greater democracy in the workplace, the struggle to retain its old pre-eminence in a competitive world where new ‘green field’ universities were rivalling older civic institutions. The book tells the story, not just from the point of view of administrators and academics, but also from those of students and support staff (such as secretaries, technicians and engineers). It not only uses official records, but also student newspapers, political pamphlets and reminiscences collected through interviews.
Setting the stage
On 25 May 1828, one month after the launch of Stanislas Baudry’s omnibus service in Paris, a new vaudeville play premiered at the Théâtre de Vaudeville. Titled Les omnibus, ou la revue en voiture, the play portrays a bitter dispute between drivers of the newly introduced omnibuses and those of the individual vehicles for hire – fiacres, coucous and cabriolets1 – that had previously dominated the Parisian transportation market. The drivers of vehicles for hire accuse the omnibus of unfairly luring customers away from other modes of transport, which are unable to compete with a fare of just 25 centimes.2 In a parallel plot line, new popular theatres (such as le Théâtre du Gymnase, Le Cirque and the Théâtre de Vaudeville) engage in a fierce feud with the elite and aristocratic Théâtre de l’Opéra. While the popular theatres align themselves with the omnibuses, the Opéra sides with the more expensive vehicles for hire, representing social privilege. By masterfully weaving together these two seemingly unrelated strands of the plot, Les omnibus, ou la revue en voiture brings to the fore the nexus of public transport and popular culture, and thus the relationship between mass transit and mass entertainment.
Les omnibus, ou la revue en voiture was one among many works of popular literature that embraced the new form of mass transit as an archetypal modern subject that embodied many of the features of this very literature. An astonishing number of cultural documents published across the nineteenth century explored different aspects of the omnibus experience. These included a broad range of works of urban observation, literary guidebooks,3 short stories, caricatures, vaudeville plays, society games and epic poems, as well as a number of works that are difficult to classify. Popular luxury volumes such as Paris, ou le livre des cent-et-un (1831–34), Les Français peints par eux-mêmes (1840–42), Nouveau Tableau de Paris au XIXe siècle (1834) and others included chapters on omnibus travel, while Edouard Gourdon devoted an entire physiologie – one of the most popular genres of the 1840s – to the topic (Physiologie de l’omnibus, 1842).
Beyond the middle decades of the nineteenth century, which saw the rise of popular print culture, the omnibus continued to fascinate writers long after it had lost its novelty. In the 1880s and 1890s, for example, there were scores of popular songs telling stories set on the omnibus. Writers such as Emile Dartès, a well-regarded editor of Victor Hugo’s work, produced a three-volume humorous Contes en omnibus (1894), and as late as 1906 fin-de-siècle writers such as François Coppée, Jean Lorrain, Jules Clarétie and Octave Uzanne continued to publish tales set on the omnibus or wax nostalgic in the press about their experiences riding the vehicle in their youth.
In this chapter, I investigate the literary appeal of the omnibus – a seemingly mundane element of everyday life – and introduce many of the works to which I will return in later chapters. My argument here is twofold: first, I show how the omnibus fascinated nineteenth-century writers because it embodied the ideas of ‘the popular’ and ‘the everyday’; second, I illustrate how this literature harnessed distinctive features of the omnibus – such as the diversity of the passengers, the idea of mixing different elements within the same space and the concept of the multiplicity of perspectives – to generate new modes of writing. Omnibus literature, as I call it, deployed the vehicle as an organising narrative and structuring principle, a means of depicting both the totality and the vicissitudes of the modern urban experience. In other words, the omnibus as a space of mixing and mobility provided a literary model for the writing of the everyday.
Paris on the page
Omnibus literature arose during a veritable revolution in the literary marketplace, beginning in the 1830s. The dramatic changes concerned both the kind of literature that was being written and consumed and the way it was produced and disseminated. Alongside the profound transformations of Parisian urban and social landscapes in the 1830s and 1840s emerged a broad array of new literary genres aimed at representing a society in transition. This lively urban literature became the hallmark of the mass literary market during the middle decades of the nineteenth century.4 Described today as ‘panoramic’ (a term coined by Walter Benjamin), it sought to provide a seemingly objective, encyclopedic view of the city, its inhabitants and contemporary urban practices and trends – the kind of perspective afforded in the panoramas popular throughout Paris in the first half of the nineteenth century.5 Different forms of panoramic literature targeted different types of audience. There were, for example, the widely popular and inexpensive physiologies, pocket-sized, easily consumable volumes that focused on a single social type or a particular urban location or phenomenon. Nearly 120 different physiologies were published between 1840 and 1842, predominantly by the publishing house Maison Aubert, with 500,000 copies sold at 1 franc each.6 A genre known for satirising contemporary mores, the physiologies offered remarkable insight into the social dynamics of the time while also providing the middle classes with a space for self-reflection. Similar to the physiologies in tone and aims – but different in looks and audience – were the upscale tableaux de Paris, or literary guidebooks. From Paris, ou le livre des cent-et-un, published between 1831 and 1834 and authored, as the title suggests, by 101 different writers, to the 1839–42 Les Français peints par eux-mêmes and numerous nouveaux tableaux de Paris, these books could be purchased in instalments or as elegantly bound complete editions and were usually geared toward a wealthier, middle-class public. Both the physiologies and the luxury volumes presented humorous, pseudo-sociological, episodic depictions of everyday urban phenomena (types, events, places, professions).7 Other cultural forms, such as the daily press, the serial novel (roman-feuilleton), the caricature and the popular theatre, emerged largely in response to the constantly changing, ephemeral pressures of the modern city.
The development of new literary forms took place against the backdrop of dramatic changes in the production and consumption of literature. Beginning in the 1830s, a number of technical innovations transformed both the printing process and paper production. Historian Martyn Lyons suggests that the 1830s saw the most significant changes to the publication process since the age of Gutenberg: ‘In political terms, the Old Regime had ended in 1789, but the typographical Old Regime expired in the 1830s.’8 The industrialisation of book production, the launch of large-circulation daily newspapers, inaugurated by Emile de Girardin’s La Presse and Armand Dutacq’s Le Siècle in 1836, the introduction of advertisements and the invention of the railway, which facilitated distribution and marketing, all contributed to a fundamentally changing process of producing and reading literature, and to the advent of a mass literary market.
These new cultural forms did not limit themselves to depicting everyday experiences and urban phenomena: they aimed to classify, decipher and analyse the social class and moral standing of various Parisian types and to render legible and transparent the urban spaces they inhabited. This imperative to establish transparency stemmed not only from a reconfiguration of physical city spaces, increasing circulation of people and vehicles and a dramatic rise in population size in Paris but, even more importantly, from radical shifts in established social structures in post-Revolutionary France. To understand Paris meant to understand French history and society. As Priscilla Ferguson notes, ‘Writers focused so obsessively on the city because it seemed to hold the key to an explosive past no less than to a bewildering future’.9 They saw a need to untangle the new cultural codes necessary to navigating a society in flux.
Yet, as scholars have pointed out, Paris was a difficult place to read.10 Nineteenth-century Parisian urban spaces and the social landscapes associated with them refused clear interpretation. Indeed, urban observers who sought to make sense of Paris, to define or distil its identity, or to catalogue and classify it, were confronted with a decentred, unstable and multifaceted city. For writers interested in urban observation, ‘reading’ or ‘writing’ Paris was always problematised; the city, unsettled by accelerating circulation and social flux, seemed to elude understanding. As we have seen, though, the raison d’être of this array of specifically urban genres and texts was the ambition to give coherence and meaning to the instability of modern experience. Their proliferation reflected the desire to suspend and hold (and thus control) through writing the ever changing urban and social environment.
Within this context, the omnibus became a key object for representing the city and its inhabitants in all their complexity. Omnibus literature effectively taps into different connotations of the word omnibus. The term is, first of all, a neologism referring to a new mode of transport, a vehicle containing a heterogeneous group of people who are haphazardly thrown together and thus exposed to each other’s gaze for an extended period of time. The diversity of passengers with respect to their social class, gender, comportment and attire, all contained within the same space, is central to the fascination the vehicle of mass transit exerted upon nineteenth-century writers and artists.
A drawing by M. Sahib from 1874 provides a vivid illustration of the heterogeneity that characterised the omnibus interior. It depicts a very crowded vehicle featuring passengers from a broad range of social classes (Figure 1.1). On the right, there is a working-class boy sitting next to a kitchen cook or a maid in a plaid shawl and a bonnet. Across from them is a fashionably appointed couple, whose clothes and stylish accessories clearly mark them as belonging to a higher social stratum. The lady’s elegant coat adorned with a fur collar, her fashionable hat, handbag and gloves, as well as her companion’s top hat and prominently displayed vest, made of an expensive material such as velvet, distinguish them from their surroundings. The man’s long fingers casually hold the handle of his modish cane. Even their faces appear to be more refined than those of their fellow passengers. The dense class heterogeneity and crowdedness of the omnibus are palpable in this drawing. Every inch of this image appears to be filled with assorted human figures who dwarf the space of the vehicle itself. Omnibus literature thus borrows the concept of ‘the omnibus’ as a form holding together diverse pieces, a totality comprising a variety of distinct fragments, and puts it to narrative ends.
Later, the term ‘omnibus’ began to be used to characterise collections of disparate texts, inspiring a new way of gathering and disseminating writing. As a figure, the omnibus allowed urban writers to write about virtually everything, to broach every conceivable topic in a variety of registers, from the study of manners (l’étude de mœurs) to the analysis of type and character, from social satire to descriptions of changing urban landscape, and from caricature to philosophical meditations on time, space and the meaning of life. Like the vehicle, omnibus literature captured the heterogeneity of modern experience, making use of its ‘omni-ness’, or all-encompassing nature. Finally, the omnibus as a mode of representation was appealing because, as a vehicle intended ‘for all’, it embodied the concept of the popular, and thus was an ideal topic of popular literature. These deep connections between public transport and popular literature intended ‘for all’ shaped the literary corpus.
Performing the popular
As a subject of popular culture, the omnibus owes some of its popularity to what Margaret Cohen calls ‘the conceptual emergence of the everyday’ as a valid, and even privileged, topic of representation, and to the rise of the literature that focused on everyday social practices.11 From its launch, the omnibus became a quintessential feature of the urban landscape, an indispensable part of the Parisian quotidian, the epitome of the everyday. Both the new conveyance itself and the novel forms of sociability that it engendered provided perfect fodder and form for what journalist Jules Janin, in his famous defence of popular literature, called ‘une littérature pour tous les jours’ (everyday literature). In arguing against what his opponent Désiré Nisard called ‘la littérature difficile’ (difficult literature), Janin passionately advocated ‘cultural democracy’ (to use historian Mary Gluck’s term), dismissing the idea that new popular literature was failing on both moral and aesthetic grounds.12 Indeed, Janin called for a democratisation of literature for everybody: ‘la littérature de tous à la portée de tous’13 (everybody’s literature accessible to all). Like the omnibus, a democratic vehicle meant for everybody, one that aimed (at least in principle) at a broad spectrum of the public, emerging popular literature was destined for a broad reading audience, rather than the elite alone. Thus, the omnibus and popular literature, as imagined by Janin and his fellow writers, shared the same public and participated in the production of a new kind of cultural modernity, in the streets, on the page and on stage.
For an example of how popular literature deployed the omnibus as a symbol of the popular, let us return to the vaudeville play Les omnibus, ou la revue en voiture. It is worth dwelling at some length on the very first play about the omnibus (and quite possibly the first literary text about it), because it perfectly articulates the association between public transit and popular culture. The play is a hilarious romp that taps into seemingly disparate but, in fact, deeply interconnected contemporary issues. First, it dramatises a turf war between private vehicles for hire and the newly introduced omnibuses, a conflict that featured in contemporary caricature as well (Figures 1.2 and 1.3). It also satirises a competition for theatre-going audiences between, on the one hand, the elite and stately Théâtre de l’Opéra, with its pedigree traced to the glory days of Louis XIV, and, on the other, the numerous popular theatres that sprung up during the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Les omnibus, ou la revue en voiture brilliantly captures the inherent link between popular entertainment and mass transit. The play explicitly identifies both the omnibus and the vaudeville as phenomena that benefit and represent the ordinary, middlebrow public (‘les petits gens’), and places the idea of the popular, be it transit or entertainment, at the forefront.
At least three mid-nineteenth-century vaudeville plays centre their plots on the omnibus. As a genre, the comédie-vaudeville was preoccupied with capturing Paris at its most modern, and vaudeville playwrights were particularly interested in representing current events and everyday social conflicts. In the guise of slapstick comedy, vaudeville often exposed the underlying anxieties of the commercial middle class, the same class that constituted the majority of both omnibus passengers and vaudeville-goers. The omnibus and vaudeville, as both genre and experience, served as refracting mirrors for each other, shaping everyday social and cultural practices.
Vaudeville was by far the most popular form of public entertainment in Paris during the first half of the nineteenth century. By the 1840s, close to three million spectators a year attended vaudeville performances, and vaudeville accounted for 56 per cent of all box-office receipts. Nearly 1,300 new vaudevilles plays were written and produced between 1815 and 1830 alone, and their popularity continued well into the nineteenth century.14 As Jennifer Terni points out, both the rise of the public transportation system (specifically the omnibus) and the development of vaudeville contributed to the rise of a vibrant consumer culture during the July Monarchy and beyond.15 A developing network of omnibus routes that catered to the commercial and entertainment centres of the city allowed a growing number of people to attend theatre performances. Spaces of leisure became more accessible to broader swathes of the population. At the same time, as a genre that drew on the latest urban trends and newest consumer practices, vaudeville deployed omnibus travel as both a frequent subject and as a plot device.16 This quintessentially popular form of mass culture was the first to grapple with the first vehicle of mass-transit.
Figure 1.3 Jean Georges Frey, ‘Les Dames Blanches et le fiacre: Y-s-auront le tems d’engraisser nos chevaux!!!!!’. 1828. This caricature highlights several contrasts. It shows a disgruntled-looking driver of a fiacre waiting idly, his horse seemingly hanging its head in despair, while in the background numerous elegantly dressed passengers are boarding an omnibus. The fiacre and its driver are in the shadow, depicted in dark, ominous colours. The omnibus, by contrast, is brightly coloured and lit. Finally, the omnibus driver is wearing an elegant coat and a top hat and looks dignified, whereas the fiacre driver is clad in rumpled clothing. The image appears to reverse the class association of two vehicles, coding the omnibus as a conveyance for the upper classes.
From its very first lines, Les omnibus, ou la revue en voiture makes it clear that what is at stake here is not so much the vehicles themselves but the kind of people they represent. The opening song associates the omnibus with ‘les petits gens’:
Les Omnibus c’est la voiture
De la petit’ propriété,
Contre une avers’, l’hiver ça vous assure,
Et contre la poussière en été.
Roulant comme les maîtres
L’boulanger port’ son pain,
L’facteur porte ses lettres,
Et dit en narguant le sapin:
Vivent, Vivent les Omnibus!
Roulons not’ bosse
Cum jambis et pedibus,
A pied nous n’irons plus.17
(The Omnibus is the carriage
Of the little people
In the winter it protects you from the rain
And in the summer, from the dust
Rolling like masters
The baker is carrying his bread
The postman, his letters
And they all tease the policeman
In this way:
Long live the Omnibus!
Let’s get our back rolling along
Cum jambis et pedibus,
No more going on foot!)
The song refers to a broad spectrum of ordinary working people (a baker, a postman, a seamstress, a young soldier, a bailiff and an office clerk) for whom the omnibus presents a unique opportunity of affordable urban transportation. It not only shields these people from the elements and provides very real comforts but, perhaps more importantly, allows them for the first time to feel like masters, with the line ‘Roulant comme les maîtres’ pointing to the essentially classed nature of urban locomotion. Thanks to the omnibus, ‘Les petits gens ne s’rons plus victimes/ Du fier landau numéroté’ (The little people will no longer fall victims/ to the proud numbered landau), suggesting a metonymic link between the landau, a luxury carriage, and its presumably privileged occupants, who literally splatter pedestrians with the mud that generously covered Parisian streets at the time. The mud also represents social oppression inflicted upon lower-class city dwellers by the upper classes.18
In a move typical of vaudeville plays, the song concludes with a satirical twist, proclaiming that now the ordinary people, just like polite society, can also happily run over those who are beneath them:
Nous pourrons à la ronde,
D’un air de dignité,
Ecraser l’pauvre monde
Comme la bonne société19
(Now, looking dignified
We, too, can run over little people
Just the way members of high society do)
The opening song thus establishes the play’s problematic around questions of class and audience. It clearly privileges the ‘ordinary’ (‘petits’) people, the presumptive omnibus passengers, as well as vaudeville-goers, and hails the vehicle as a kind of equalising force, while at the same time reaffirming principles of social hierarchy.
The first scene features coachmen of various Parisian vehicles for hire – a fiacre, a cabriolet and a coucou – lamenting that the newly inaugurated omnibus is ruining their business (‘La roue de la fortune a tourné, et les nôtres ne tournent plus’20 (The wheel of fortune has turned, but ours now stay idle)). Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of the Wandering Jew (a figure who embodies movement), who has returned to France after a two hundred-year absence.21 In the play, the Wandering Jew is a pragmatic character who embraces progress and bestows the wisdom gained from his travels on the bewildered Parisians, helping them to make sense of their rapidly changing social and physical world.22 The Wandering Jew begins by praising France for its commitment to progress (‘Comme en France on avance’23 (How things are moving along in France)). When coachmen offer him a ride, however, he is baffled by the outrageous prices. Popular legend has it that the Wandering Jew travelled with 5 sous in his pocket (corresponding to the five injuries he inflicted on Christ), a sum that, by happy coincidence, is equal to the omnibus fare. When an omnibus arrives, and the Wandering Jew learns about the fare, he immediately departs aboard the new vehicle, ignoring the coachmen’s loud protestations.
The second plot line is introduced in the following scene, set in the waiting room of a courthouse, in anticipation of judicial proceedings. Here, the Wandering Jew meets the plaintiffs, the personified second-tier theatres (‘les théâtres secondaires’), Le Gymnase, Les Varietés, le Vaudeville, les Nouveautés and la Gaïté. All of these theatres were well known for producing vaudevilles and other popular forms of entertainment. The personified theaters have come to plead their case against the oppressive ‘tyrant de la rue Lepelletier [sic] … le grand Opéra’24 (the tyrant of rue Le Pelletier… the great Opera). It appears that L’Opéra attempts to meddle with the kind of performances the other theatres like to stage. In a clever move, the Jew, while seemingly listing L’Opéra’s objections, advertises the popular theatres, enumerating all the thrilling aspects of their performances: ‘Je connais vos griefs!… on ne peut ni sauter, ni danser, ni valser, ni parler, ni mimer, ni monter à cheval, ni danser sur la corde, ni montrer les ombres chinoises, ni faire des tours de gobelets, ni avaler les sabres, ni assassiner, ni empoisonner, ni chanter juste, ni chanter faux…sans que l’Opéra ne se figure que ça le regarde.’25 (I know your grievances!… L’Opéra takes it upon himself to interfere every time you wish to jump, or dance, or waltz, or talk, or mime, or mount a horse, or dance on a rope, or show Chinese shadow play, or show magic tricks with glasses, or swallow swords, or assassinate, or poison, or sing in key, or sing off key.)
Here we see a clear juxtaposition of mass and elite cultures: the second-tier theatres represent the middlebrow crowd, while L’Opéra personifies high art, ancien régime aristocracy and wealth.26 ‘Nous arrivons en Omnibus, pour plaider; tous les petits-Théâtres se sont levés en masse’ (We arrive on an omnibus to plead our cause; all the second-tier Theaters are rising up), declares Le Vaudeville, making clear the connection between the public conveyance and popular entertainment. When their opponent, L’Opéra, comes on stage, the Wandering Jew remarks, ‘Ah ça, il n’est pas venu en Omnibus, celui-là!’27 (Ah! This one didn’t come on an Omnibus). Indeed, the actor playing L’Opéra makes his entrance on stilts, literally representing high art and high society; at the same time, the association of stilts with the circus, perhaps the lowest form of popular entertainment, contributes to ridiculing L’Opéra, who in this performance becomes a source of physical comedy (in other words, becomes ‘vaudevillesque’). The vaudeville’s audience could certainly relate to – and enjoy – such mockery of high art.
The two plot lines converge in the last act of the play, which is set in front of the Palais de Justice. With the rain that has begun to fall, the coachmen of the vehicles for hire are eagerly anticipating customers. We understand that the court proceedings have concluded when, according to stage directions, the second-tier theatres triumphantly pour outside armed with umbrellas (parapluies) and depart on an omnibus. They are followed by L’Opéra, carrying an elegant but useless ombrelle (parasol). We can assume that he lost his case: L’Opéra ‘se sauve à toutes jambes’28 (runs off as fast as his legs would carry him). In the nineteenth century, the parasol was associated with the elite leisure classes and was unambiguously coded as feminine. That L’Opéra, played by a male actor, is carrying a feminising ombrelle adds insult to injury in mocking this character and, by extension, the kind of audience associated with elite entertainment.29
Having thus established the unquestionable advantage of popular theatres, the action of the play then shifts back to the conflict between the coachmen of the vehicles for hire and the omnibus drivers. In the final scene, the Wandering Jew settles their dispute and brokers peace between the two groups by calling on them to share the streets of Paris. Appealing to the coachmen’s business acumen, he reminds them that, in fact, the omnibuses and the vehicles for hire do not compete for the same passengers: ‘ceux qui sont montés en Omnibus ne seraient montés ni en fiacre, ni en cabriolet, d’après leurs facultés pécuniaires’30 (those who take the omnibus would not ride in a fiacre or a cabriolet anyway, in accordance with their financial abilities). All ends well as the entire cast of characters – the coachmen, the theatres and the Wandering Jew – joyfully depart the stage in an omnibus. Class tensions are successfully resolved within the safe space of the theatre stage, as the Wandering Jew re-establishes order and reminds the audience of existing social hierarchies. In the concluding song, the Wandering Jew recalls once more the parallel between vaudeville and the omnibus, and invites the audience to treat them in the same way:
La mode en Omnibus s’installe,
De public ils sont tous pourvus;
Faites, Messieurs, que votre salle
Chaque jour soit un omnibus…
(The fashion for Omnibus is established
They all are supplied with public
Make it so, Messieurs, that your theatre
Be ‘an omnibus’ every day…)
L’omnibus ou la revue en voiture cleverly uses the innovation in public transit to make an argument about innovative theatre practices, at the same time using the vaudeville theatre, beloved by the middlebrow public, to promote the omnibus. Both the transport and the art form, the play argues, ultimately benefit the middlebrow public and represent its values. The play captures the deep connection between the popular theater – and, more broadly, popular literature – and the omnibus: both appealed to a similar public and reflected a shift toward the democratisation of public life, whether in entertainment or transport. In doing so, the omnibus and its representations in popular literature participated in articulating ‘cultural modernity’, as defined by Sharon Marcus: both the cultural form and the form of transport revealed a keen awareness of the new.31 As we shall see, other popular genres engaged with omnibus travel, drawing on its salient characteristics to generate new forms of writing.
Surfing the omnibus literature
In a sense, omnibus literature became the medium par excellence for representing modern urban experience. It explicitly takes the characteristics of the omnibus – such as the concept of mixing diverse elements under a unified form, or the multiplicity of voices and perspectives one associates with this vehicle – and turns them into writing strategies. In what follows, I offer a brief introduction to some of the main texts of omnibus literature and an analysis of ways in which they deployed various features of the vehicle and put them to literary use.
Omnibus literature was quintessentially what Margaret Cohen calls literature of the everyday, and it is to her classic analysis of key features of this literature that I now turn. Focusing on a number of works of panoramic genres, such as tableaux, physiologies, literary city guides and volumes such as Paris, ou le livre des cent-et-un, Les Français peints par eux-même and Le Diable à Paris, Cohen reveals how they rely on ‘micronarratives with no continuity from plot to plot’, usually presented from the viewpoint of a single narrator.32 These brief snapshots of everyday happenings assemble a variety of modern urban experiences, subjects and characters. Multiple authorship is another prominent feature of panoramic genres, contributing to the range of voices and viewpoints typical of this literature,33 and the diversity of contributing authors – from well established through up-and-coming to virtually unknown – complements the diversity of topics. Finally, panoramic literature is characterised by what Cohen aptly terms ‘heterogenericity’, a wide range of genres and registers within the same text.
These concepts are particularly useful in considering omnibus literature, which deployed them well beyond the lifespan of the panoramic literature of the July Monarchy, and used them self-reflexively, linking formal literary strategies with the vehicle’s features. While the authorial and generic diversity of panoramic texts relates to their panoptic aims, within the genre of omnibus literature it reflects the ‘omni-ness’ of texts that take this new mode of mass transit not merely as a topic but also as a narrative organising principle. In other words, the form and the content mirror one another: these popular texts use the ‘omnibus’ structure to make sense of a broad range of modern experiences and to work through the tensions and complexities of their contemporary urban environment and shifting social structures.
The reliance on micronarratives is perhaps the most salient characteristic of numerous works in the corpus. Consider, for example, how one of the first works of omnibus literature, the anonymous Les omnibus. Premier voyage de Cadet la Blague de la place de la Madeleine à la Bastille et retour (1828), makes use of micronarratives organised around the flow of passengers on and off the vehicle.34 In this satirical work, the narrator deploys many of the comical ingredients of vaudeville theatre – slapstick humour, chance encounters, reversals of fortune – to convey the chaotic happenings that he observes during a ride. Here are just a few examples. The first vignette involves a drunkard harassing a proper bourgeois woman travelling with her husband; the husband defends his honour with his fists, and in the process both the husband and the drunkard tumble out of the omnibus. The wife follows but misses the step ‘et tomba la tête la première sur le boulevard, les jambes en l’air, et montrant ce qu’on a l’habitude de cacher’35 (and fell head first on the boulevard, legs in the air, and showing that which one usually conceals). In the next episode, three ladies of easy virtue (or, as the narrator calls them, ‘les nymphes’) and their male companions make their entrance, and the narrator recognises one of the ladies as his friend’s mistress. And in another scene, a family with children, dogs and a gigantic leg of lamb (gigot) causes tremendous chaos and disorder through a series of predictable mishaps (the little boy urinates in his father’s lap; the dog pilfers the leg of lamb; the narrator tries to extricate the leg from the dog, who ends up biting him; the narrator throws the dog out on to the boulevard, etc). Upon noticing this group about to board the omnibus, the narrator anticipates that their presence will provide him with a good story: ‘Je me doutais que ses originaux nous fourniraient quelque scène nouvelle, et je ne me trompais pas’36 (I suspected that these characters would supply me with some new stories, and they didn’t disappoint). In the end, the passengers get arrested for causing a public disturbance, but upon their release they all go out to dinner, and social and narrative order is restored.37 The entire work thus uses omnibus travel as an organising narrative principle: each episode centres on a group of passengers, and the episode’s beginning and end correspond to the journey’s beginning and end.
We find a similar structure in a text published at the end of the nineteenth century. Emile Dartès organises the three chapters comprising his Contes en omnibus38 (first published as three separate volumes in 1893, and then again as one volume in 1894) around the comings and goings of passengers as observed by a first-person narrator, with each chapter named after an omnibus line (Madeleine–Bastille, Montrouge-Gare de l’Est and Batignolles-Clichy-Odéon). Thus, omnibus travel explicitly supplies the narrative structure of the work as a whole. The episodes include mundane observations of conversations among passengers, ‘shaggy dog’ stories, including slapstick humour about passengers falling into each other’s laps, and an extended sequence about a mother, her baby and a wet nurse (which I will analyse in greater detail in Chapter 4). At the end of the third tale, the narrator concludes that while the omnibus is neither the fastest nor the most comfortable mode of transportation, it is a literary gold mine for a writer, as he lists all the fascinating and diverse characters he had the chance to observe during his journey, and who now will provide fodder for his stories:
Quant à moi, pour six sous, j’ai été voituré une heure durant, à trois chevaux s’il vous plaît, avec cocher devant, laquais derrière, et j’ai vu trente-six choses émouvantes ou simplement intéressantes: un huissier arrêté, spectacle aussi rare que réjouissant; un piou-piou qui m’a rappelé Cambronne, de glorieuse mémoire, ce qui m’a fait revivre une page de l’Histoire; j’ai vu défiler tous les échantillons de l’espèce parisienne: des bourgeois, des filles, des ouvriers, des gommeux, voire même des Anglaises qui personnifient l’espèce londonienne; […]Bref, je n’ai pas eu une minute d’ennui.39
(As for me, for 6 sous I was ferried around for a whole hour, pulled by three horses if you please, with a coachman in front and a valet in the back, and I saw thirty-six things that were touching or simply interesting: a bailiff getting arrested – a sight as rare as it is joyous; a soldier who reminded me of Cambronne, of glorious memory, making me relive a page from history; I saw numerous examples of Parisian types parade before me: the bourgeois, the prostitutes, the workers, the fops, even the Englishwomen embodying the London type. In short, I wasn’t bored even for a minute.)
It is clear, then, that the omnibus continued to supply narrative form well into the nineteenth century. The vehicle brings together a number of unrelated plot lines and highlights the dynamics between, on the one hand, the variety of characters and plots, and, on the other, the capacity of the omnibus as a narrative device to unify them into a single whole. In this sense, many works set on an omnibus become themselves ‘omnibus’ texts, or ‘works comprising several different items’.
Much more than a background or setting, the omnibus provides essential structural elements around which these works are organised. It naturally lends itself to episodic narratives that begin when a passenger boards the vehicle and ends when the passenger descends; temporally, each episode lasts the length of a ride. There is no need for a formal transition between episodes; all the author needs to do is usher one or more passengers out of the vehicle before moving on to the next story. While the episodes usually centre on thematically diverse topics, the setting delivers both narrative transitions and unity.
Multiple authorship and heterogeneity are other prominent traits of omnibus literature. Several important multi-authored volumes from the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s included texts about the omnibus by well-known writers of the time. An early example is Ernest Fouinet’s ‘Un voyage en omnibus de la barrière du Thrône à la barrière de l’Etoile’ (1831) from Paris, ou le livre des cent-et-un, which aimed to provide moral insights into the social topography of Paris through satirical observations. ‘Un voyage en omnibus’ is a first-person narrative in which the narrator recounts what he observes during a ride across the city. His observations include descriptions of sites he sees from the window and comments on a wide range of passengers (a flirty grisette; an old dowager; a peasant; a beautiful, delicate young lady who captivates the narrator; an appalling drunk smelling of tobacco and alcohol). As in other texts, the stories about each passenger are short and episodic, lasting only the duration of the ride, and Fouinet intersperses these passenger tales with philosophical musings that showcase how the omnibus captured writers’ imagination by providing them with a metaphor of life: ‘L’omnibus est l’image du monde; on vient, on s’en va: qui s’en occupe? A moins que vous ne soyez le Roi, le premier enfant qu’attend une jeune mère, ou le célibataire que guettent ses collatéraux, le prêtre qui enterre, vous regarde-t-on entrer, vous regarde-t-on sortir?’40 (The omnibus is the image of the world: you get on, you get off – who cares? Unless you’re the king, the baby expected by a new mother, an old bachelor whose heirs await his death, or a priest officiating at a funeral, does anyone care whether you come or go?)
Similarly, Louis Huart’s ‘Les voitures publiques’, from Nouveau Tableau de Paris au XIXe siècle (1834), offers an overview of different Parisian vehicles, a short typology of vehicle drivers, a meditation on the speed of modern life, a biting analysis of social hierarchy as embodied by various types of conveyances and, finally, a philosophical vision of an omnibus as a metaphor of life:
Car notre vie est-elle rien autre chose qu’un voyage en omnibus ? Comme les voyageurs d’omnibus, nous arrivons tous on ne sait d’où; nous prenons la place à côté de ceux qui sont installés; nous faisons quelques connaissances avec les personnes qui voyagent de concert avec nous. – Si elles descendent en route, leur souvenir est bien vite effacé de notre mémoire par les autres voyageurs qui viennent prendre leur place; puis, dans l’omnibus comme dans le monde, nous nous marchons sur les pieds les uns des autres, parce que partout les rangs sont pressés, et que nous cherchons à faire notre chemin sans penser à nos voisins; puis enfin l’omnibus étant arrivé à sa station, au terme de la course, chacun de ces voyageurs venus on ne sait d’où, se dispersent et disparaissent pour aller on ne sait où.41
(For is our life not an omnibus journey? Like omnibus passengers, we all arrive from we don’t know where; we take our seat next to those who are already there; we make acquaintance of some of our fellow travellers. If they get off along the way, their memory is quickly erased by other passengers who come to take their place. Then too, on the omnibus as in life, we step on each other’s feet because people everywhere are in a rush, and we seek to make our way without giving a thought to those around us. Finally, when the omnibus arrives at the final destination, and the trip comes to an end, each one of the passengers who had come from we don’t know where, will now disperse and disappear – we don’t know where).
The tone of this meditation on life and death and the meaning of social interactions stands in stark contrast to the rest of Huart’s essay, which is either dry and factual or satirical.
Both multiple authorship and heterogeneity are at work in the 1854 Paris-en-omnibus. This text was produced by a trio of writers renowned in the world of popular press: Taxile Delord, editor-in-chief of Le Charivari, Arnould Frémy, also involved with Le Charivari, and Edmond Texier, editor-in-chief of L’Illustration.42 Paris-en-omnibus was part of Les Petits Paris, a series of fifty short illustrated volumes investigating different aspects of Parisian life.43 In the tradition of the physiologie of the 1840s, the titles in the Petits Paris series ranged from those focused on a specific type (Paris-Grisette, Paris-Voleur, Paris-Prêtre, Paris-Notaire, Paris-Fumeur) to those centred on a specific space (Paris-Restaurant, Paris-Boursier). The price for one volume was 50 centimes, and they could be purchased individually or as a series subscription. Their in-octodecimo format also replicated the size and look of the physiologies. Paris-en-omnibus consists of thirty short chapters widely varying in tone and subject, ranging from a straightforward history of the omnibus service in Paris (‘De l’omnibus et son origine’) to lengthy disquisitions on omnibus horses and their upkeep (‘Le Palais des chevaux’ and ‘De la sociabilité du cheval d’omnibus’), and from reflections on the melancholy of the regular omnibus passengers (‘Les mœurs de l’habitué de l’omnibus’) to satirical tales of encounters with prostitutes who use the omnibus to fetch clients, and of improbable on-board childbirths (‘La femme qui accouche’).44 Paris-en-omnibus also contains what can be called mini-physiologies, typological studies of the omnibus driver and the omnibus conductor, as well as other types frequently found aboard the conveyance. For example, one chapter is about the ‘omnibus farceur’, a joker who causes mayhem by sitting on the lap of another passenger, or even on top of an old lady, or pretends to have an attack of cholera. At the end of the chapter we learn that ‘les farceurs d’omnibus sont excessivement rares. On peut même dire réellement qu’il n’existe plus’ (the omnibus jokers are exceedingly rare. You can in fact say they no longer exist), and so it becomes clear that the entire vignette is a joke.45 In addition, we find diverse approaches to typologising: while the chapter on the conductor is a third-person ‘objective’ observation, the chapter dedicated to the driver (‘Grandeur et décadence du cocher’) is a first-person narrative written from the perspective and in the voice of the cocher himself.
The tone and register of the chapters in Paris-en-omnibus vary extensively. Some present short humorous mises-en-scène in the mode of slapstick comedy (such as the vignette about the omnibus joker cited above). Others are almost philosophical in tone. Consider, for example, a chapter called ‘Des mœurs de l’habitué d’omnibus’. In this chapter, the narrator describes his experience as a regular omnibus passenger and highlights the modern urban subject’s sense of alienation and estrangement:
Rien ne porte à la tristesse et à la mélancolie comme de voyager souvent en omnibus. L’habitué d’omnibus, à quelque sexe qu’il appartienne, est un être sombre, silencieux, concentré en lui-même. L’omnibus rend farouche et misanthrope. J’ai fait pendant deux ans le trajet de Paris à Saint-Cloud par les omnibus de la rue de Bouloi. Je partais par le dernier départ de minuit le quart. Quand on parcourt la même route deux années de suite, on finit par connaitre le personnel des voyageurs. Ce sont presque toujours les mêmes personnes qui se retrouvent. Vous croyez qu’on va faire connaissance; ah! bien oui! On s’assoit à coté les uns des autres sans rien dire; les femmes abaissent leurs voiles, les hommes ramènent leurs chapeaux sur les yeux. […] Qu’un voyageur candide et novice essaye d’entamer la conversation, on lui répond d’abord par monosyllabes, puis on finit par ne plus répondre du tout.46
(Nothing predisposes toward sadness and melancholy more than frequent omnibus travel. A regular omnibus rider, no matter what sex, is a sombre, quiet person who turns inward. The omnibus makes you mistrustful and misanthropic. For two years, I took the omnibus of rue de Bouloi from Paris to Saint-Cloud. I took the last omnibus at quarter past midnight. When you make the same trip for two years, you end up recognizing your fellow passengers. It’s almost always the same ones. You’d think people would get to know each other. Ha! Think again: you sit next to one another without saying a word. Women lower their veils; men pull their hats over their faces. When a novice traveller attempts to start a conversation, at first people respond with monosyllables and then end up not responding at all.)
With the images of silent passengers pulling their hats over their eyes and their veils over their faces, this passage perfectly captures the disconnection and alienation that were a fundamental part of cultural understanding of the modern urban environment and that contributed to anxieties about modernity. The presence of such a poignant and keen reflection in a work that is predominantly satirical and tongue-in-cheek in tone is particularly jarring.
Heterogeneity is also at work in Charles Soullier’s 1863 Les Omnibus de Paris, pièce curieuse et utile à l’usage des voyageurs dans Paris.47 This text opens with a polemical poem praising the omnibus as a symbol of innovation and progress, of social equality and class inclusiveness. The poem is followed by several pages of a straightforward history of public transportation in Paris. The book’s last and longest section is a detailed guide to the Parisian omnibus lines, their itineraries, transfers and other practical matters. Such a dizzying breakdown of generic boundaries was likely to produce what Cohen calls ‘epistemological chaos’, or readerly confusion, as to how to approach such a text. Just as the omnibus-vehicle erased boundaries while simultaneously establishing hierarchies among its passengers, the omnibus-text collapsed a broad range of different types of writing between its covers.
Perhaps the most emblematic work of omnibus literature is Edouard Gourdon’s 1842 Physiologie de l’omnibus. While written by a single author and following the conventions of this genre, Gourdon’s Physiologie displays a remarkable diversity of tone, style, register and subject matter.48 The thirty chapters comprising this work include detailed descriptions of the vehicle and the omnibus station; typological portraits of passengers as well as the conductor and the omnibus bureau chief (le buraliste); several humorous mises-en-scène that stage dialogue among passengers and explore various comical situations; a love poem; a lengthy list of advertisements one finds in the station; and satirical essays on a variety of topics, from doctors’ investment habits to men’s facial hair.
Most physiologies provide a satirical portrait of just one urban type (such as the grisette, flâneur or bourgeois) or phenomenon. But the conceit of the omnibus allows Gourdon to mock a great variety of types. There is, for example, a vignette about a young poet, who, having failed to publish his poetry, comes up with a clever scheme to ride the omnibus in order to both distribute his verses and use them for seduction: ‘Il voyage depuis six mois, distribuant de droite et de gauche ses épîtres amoureuses, épiant avec l’attention d’un ruse chasseur, le gibier qu’il convoite, qu’il plume quelquefois, ayant grand soin de n’offrir ses strophes et son cœur qu’à des femmes mariées ou veuves.’49 (He has been riding omnibuses for the past six months, distributing his love epistles left and right, spying his coveted prey – which he occasionally fleeces – with the attention of a keen hunter. He makes sure to only offer his verses and his heart to women who are married or widowed.) This vignette includes the actual lengthy love poem purportedly written by the aspiring poet, and thus makes particularly visible the generic diversity of this text.
Another chapter satirises greedy doctors who allegedly put their gain above their patients’ interests. Gourdon jokingly claims that doctors were prime investors in omnibus companies because frequent accidents involving the conveyance supplied them with a steady stream of clients: ‘Tout calcul fait, il a été prouvé que trois cents voitures à six sous équivalent presque à un huitième de cholera permanent… Le médecin affectionne donc l’omnibus plus que toutes autre voiture, non pour lui, il ne sort jamais qu’en coupé ou en cabriolet, mais pour la société entière qu’il porte dans son cœur, sur laquelle il est appelée à veiller, et puis un peu aussi – j’allais dire beaucoup – pour sa caisse qu’il est appelé à remplir.’50 (To sum up, it was proven that three hundred vehicles at 6 sous are equivalent to one eighth of permanent cholera… The doctor is fond of the omnibus more than of any other vehicle, not for himself – he only travels in a carriage or a cabriolet – but for the sake of the entire society which he holds dear in his heart, and over which he is called to keep watch. And also a little bit – I would even say a lot – for the sake of his cash box that he is called to fill.)
In addition, the Physiologie de l’omnibus features many humorous scenes that the narrator observes during his omnibus ride, which allows him to ridicule different types of greedy, immoral or otherwise outlandish behaviour. There is, for instance, a story about a woman who tries to avoid paying the fare for her ten-year-old child by pretending that he is only three years old: ‘Le tableau est pittoresque. Imaginez une femme d’une taille excentrique, tenant sur ses genoux un gros garçon de dix ans qu’elle espère sauver à la perspicacité du conducteur.’51 (The scene is picturesque: imagine an eccentric-looking woman holding on her lap a big ten-year-old boy she is hoping to hide from the conductor’s vigilance.)
In another mise-en-scène, we find an amusing dialogue between two former lovers who run into each other on the omnibus:
-Comment, c’est toi!
-Comment c’est vous!
-Tu n’as donc pas oublié mon nom?
-Ni ton adresse. Où demeures-tu?
-21 bis au troisième, la porte à gauche.
-Oui légèrement, j’ai des voisins. Et toi?
-J’en ai aussi.
-Ce n’est pas ce que je te demande. Où demeures-tu?52
-So you haven’t forgotten my name?
-Nor your address. Where do you live?
-21 bis on the third floor, door on the left.
-Great, I’ll be there. Do you still need to push the button before coming in?
-Yes, but lightly – I have neighbours. And you?
-I have them too.
-That’s not what I am asking! Where do you live?)
Although this humorous dialogue does not appear to contain a lot of information, it allows the reader to glean quite a bit about the two characters involved (for example, the man’s caddish behaviour is made clear by the fact that he doesn’t remember his former mistress’s address). Another episode features a beautiful young woman with whom the narrator begins to flirt. The reader expects a development of the flirtation story. Instead, the story is interrupted by a chapter-long digression on moustaches, highlighting the unexpected turns that urban travel sometimes takes. Indeed, the topics and tone of the Physiologie de l’omnibus capture and reflect the diversity of the omnibus experience. With its panoramic scope – the passing scenes and the fragments of conversation overheard – the Physiologie gets to the heart of the idea of this vehicle as engine of modernity. The omnibus doesn’t merely represent change, motion, and flux: it embodies it.
If the Physiologie is full of omnibus statistics, omnibus vignettes, omnibus jokes and omnibus quips typical of this satirical genre, it concludes with a strikingly poetic and disquieting image of a nocturnal omnibus as a mythological creature, a shape-shifting ‘monstre fantastique’ (fantastic monster) that glides through the night:
Les lanternes de l’omnibus jettent sur les voyageurs des reflets verts et jaunes qui s’attachant ça et là sur un visage, un chapeau, un profil, une cravate, une main, les dessinent vigoureusement dans la nuit. Ce sont des caprices bizarres et toujours en mouvement, c’est une page d’Hoffmann, une esquisse de Rembrandt ou de Caillot; voici des chiens et de chauves-souris, des serpents et des loups, un rocher velu, un pont et des nuages. … Mais voici bien autre chose: l’omnibus vient de croiser un réverbère, et la silhouette entière du monstre, chevaux et cocher, voiture et voyageurs, conducteur et marche-pied, s’est accrochée aux aspérités d’une muraille blanche, et s’y reproduit comme dans un miroir… Puis tout cela se dilate peu à peu, les roues s’écartent, s’étendent, les chevaux maigrissent et s’allongent à vue d’œil, les voyageurs chevauchent sur un énorme manche à balai dont le conducteur tient le gouvernail. Nous sommes devenus lilliputiens, puis quelque chose de noir et d’uniforme, puis rien du tout: les rayons de la lanterne ne nous atteignent plus.53
(The omnibus lights throw green and yellow reflections upon the passengers. They dwell here and there on a passenger’s face, a hat, a profile, a tie, a hand – they sketch them sharply in the night. It’s always a bizarre whim that is always in motion. It’s a page from Hoffmann, a sketch by Rembrandt or Caillot. Here come dogs and bats, snakes and wolves, a mossy rock, a bridge and clouds. … But here is something else: the omnibus went by a street light, and the silhouette of the monster in its entirety – horses and coachman, vehicle and passengers, conductor and step – clings to the rough surface of a white wall, and is repeated as in a mirror… Then all this expands little by little: the wheels move aside, stretch out, the horses grow thin, and lengthen in front of us; passengers ride on an enormous broomstick handle with the conductor at the rudder. We have become Lilliputians, then something black and uniform, and then – nothing at all. The light of the lantern no longer reaches us.)
This passage reveals an acute awareness of what will later become dominant themes of modernity: anonymity, alienation, mutability. The passengers of Gourdon’s omnibus are first changed to Lilliputians, then to a uniform anonymous mass and, finally, to ‘nothing at all’, signalling a progressive dwarfing of humanity in the face of the modern machine. Gourdon shows how this new vehicle of public transit perfectly captured what Baudelaire would famously call ‘le transitoire’ (the transitory).
Omnibus literature emerges as a quintessential genre of the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The nineteenth-century urban authors I have examined in this chapter – and to whose works I will return throughout this book – used the omnibus as both form and content to represent their fluid cultural moment, capitalising on the ‘omni-ness’ of the vehicle, on its capacity to contain manifold experiences of the urban everyday. Taken as a whole, nineteenth-century omnibus literature mirrors the way the vehicle encompassed the dizzying diversity of urban experiences. Omnibus literature thus serves as a lens through which to analyse the emergence of Paris as a modern city, probe its constitutive parts and give form to the complexities of French society in post-Revolutionary France.
The omnibus didn’t simply offer urban writers a fruitful topic: it helped shape the literature of the time. Akin to the public-transit experience itself, omnibus literature offered snapshots of everyday life, capturing its provisional, fluid, transitory nature: as in Baudelaire’s ‘Une Charogne’, images both sublime and grotesque appear for a brief moment only to be swept away by the city in motion.54 Ultimately, the omnibus became a literary form through which urban writers engaged with central aspects of nineteenth-century modernity: circulation, mobility and flux, both literal and figurative; alienation as a defining feature of modern urban experience; chance encounters and momentary connection; and the breakdown of boundaries – between social classes, between sexes and between literary categories and genres.