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.
In an 1883 article in the Journal des Demoiselles, writer Lucien Griveau declares that omnibus travel is essential to understanding Paris and Parisians:
J’aime l’omnibus pour lui-même, pour sa physionomie particulière tout à fait humaine. Il est rare que je le quitte sans qu’il m’ait fourni un sujet d’observation ou de songerie. Il est un des pistons par quoi fonctionne une machine comme Paris, un des multiples agents qui concourent à son mouvement et à sa vie. Tout le jour, dans le lourd véhicule, la société défile avec sa diversité de types, chacun le souci au front ou souriant à une espérance, et, pour quiconque se plaît à rêver, une philosophie se dégage de cette gerbe de destins épars qui viennent là se nouer d’un lien léger, se toucher et se confondre une minute dans un même balancement de tête sous la trépidation des vitres.1
(I like the omnibus for its own sake, for its particular physiognomy that is entirely human. It is rare that I leave it without a topic of observation or reverie. It is one of the pegs which make the machine of Paris work, one of the great agents that contribute to its movement and its functioning. Every day, the entire society and its diverse types parade through the omnibus, each with a worried face or with a hopeful smile; if you’re inclined to dream, you will perceive a philosophy that emerges from this bundle of disparate destinies that come together, connect with a light bond, and mesh together for a brief moment in a matching swaying of heads, to the rattle of the windows.)
The mixed metaphors in Griveau’s text illustrate some of the ways the vehicle of mass transit was deployed in omnibus literature. The personified ‘human physiognomy’ of the omnibus metonymically links the vehicle to its passengers, suggesting that the main interest resides in the dynamics of their fleeting interactions, in the diversity of human types from all walks of life gathered aboard, in the titillation of discovering their live stories (‘destins’). From this sample of society in miniature, Griveau tells us, emerges ‘une philosophie’, a deeper understanding of modern life. At the same time, Griveau reminds us that the omnibus is not simply a vehicle but an essential part of the great ‘machine’ of Paris, fundamental to the workings of the metropolis. This passage is emblematic of how writers who invested in urban observation, such as Griveau, perceived the omnibus: as a treasure trove of storytelling material, as a boundless source of characters and plots and as a literary device to organise them. In the seemingly chaotic randomness of city life, writers found multitudes of stories about a wide range of human types all conveniently gathered along the vehicle’s seats. The omnibus allowed writers to dissect the Parisian social body in all its diversity while providing an insider’s guide to the changing city itself.
If the omnibus literature included a broad array of genres (city guidebooks, panoramic texts, vaudeville plays, poetry, fiction and journalism), it shared a number of features and topoi that constitute what I call the ‘omnibus repertoire’. This repertoire consists of characters, scenarios or situations that were recycled in different texts across the nineteenth century. In this chapter, I focus on a selection of exemplary recurring features from the omnibus repertoire through which we can read key themes of urban modernity. From Ernest Fouinet in 1831 to Octave Uzanne in 1900, writers put the figure of the omnibus to productive literary use as a rich source for understanding and representing both the rapidly changing physical landscape of Paris and the shifting nature of post-Revolutionary French society.
The first feature I consider in this chapter is an omniscient first-person narrator I will call the ‘omnibus flâneur’: a character instrumental in shaping perspective and in structuring narratives that use the omnibus as their setting. The omnibus flâneur displays similar characteristics across texts and emerges as a distinct urban type. A second commonly recurring feature is the trope of the omnibus journey as a narrative vehicle to explore the changing urban environment and to give the reader a textual tour of Paris. Travelling aboard the omnibus affords the narrator an entirely fresh vision of the city. At the same time, an omnibus journey gives rise to the most common topos of the omnibus literature: using the interior as a space for social observation and the study of manners (as Griveau’s passage shows). This is arguably the central aspect of omnibus literature, as it provides urban writers with a tool to showcase their skill at ‘reading’ the city. What is more, the omnibus setting allows for a study of multiple social types all at once. I conclude with a discussion of the omnibus as a site of chance encounters. While this type of encounter in any setting is a literary commonplace,2 the texts that I consider here convey a broader vision of the modern urban environment as either a space of connection or estrangement.3
These features of omnibus literature evoke larger questions about the preoccupations and agitations of the nineteenth century: change, social flux and the instability of modern experience. The omnibus repertoire was developed in the vehicle’s early years in response to transformations in the physical aspects of the city and in the social structure of post-Revolutionary France, as well as to the anxiety that these changes provoked. But even when the omnibus as a mode of transportation became outmoded, it continued to function as a medium of literary representation of the city, as shorthand for Parisian modernity with all its paradoxes. The omnibus repertoire, established during the middle decades of the century, was recycled and deployed in works through the 1880s, 1890s and into the first decade of the twentieth century. In other words, it became a topos, a literary commonplace that readers readily associated with urban observation and modernity. What is more, tales of omnibus travel allowed late-nineteenth-century writers to forge a connection with the earlier phenomenon of panoramic literature, thus granting them legitimacy as urban observers. Authors such as Guy de Maupassant, Octave Uzanne and François Coppée used omnibus travel in their works to nostalgically evoke the city of their childhood, to (sometimes ironically) appeal to readers’ sense of recognition by recycling familiar tropes and to inscribe their writing within the tradition of urban literature.4
The omnibus flâneur
In sketching the portrait of a model flâneur in his Physiologie, Louis Huart writes: ‘Le flaneur compose tout un roman, rien que sur la simple rencontre en omnibus d’une petite dame en voile baissée.’5 (The flâneur makes up an entire novel from a mere trifle, like meeting a woman on the omnibus, her face covered with a veil.) It is no coincidence that Huart chooses the setting of the omnibus to describe his character’s keen talent for social observation and his ability to spin a narrative out of a small detail, such as a flash encounter on a public conveyance. The omnibus flâneur can be described as a first-person male narrator-passenger through whose eyes and voice the reader textually experiences the ride. This figure is key to understanding the narrative strategies of much of the omnibus literature. The omnibus flâneur is at once familiar and new: a subset of the classical nineteenth-century figure who haunts a wide variety of nineteenth-century works of literature and visual culture, he uses mass transit as a privileged vantage point for urban observation and social commentary and for its storytelling possibilities.6
The flâneur hardly needs an introduction: no figure embodies nineteenth-century urban experience more fully. As Priscilla Ferguson reminds us, he is ‘an emblematic representative of modernity and personification of contemporary urbanity’.7 A detective, a leisurely city stroller, an artist and an astute reader and decipherer of the rapidly changing urban and social landscape, the flâneur was a focal point of much of the urban literature on Paris, as well as of contemporary scholarly commentary on it.
In the section of The Arcades Project devoted to the rich archive of nineteenth-century flâneur writing, Walter Benjamin was the first to implicitly suggest a deep link between this figure, the act of urban strolling and the experience of public transport. Over fifteen references to the Parisian omnibus appear in the ‘Flâneur’ section (Konvolut M), drawing on a variety of nineteenth-century French and German sources as well as Benjamin’s own commentaries.8 The omnibus flâneur not only goes ‘botanizing on the asphalt’, to use Benjamin’s famous formulation, but also deploys the omnibus to construct a complementary vision of the city, one that brings into sharp relief a connection between the advent of early public transport and the rise of urban modernity.
In Paris as Revolution, Ferguson offers a compelling genealogy of the flâneur, showing how this figure’s cultural valence changes over time.9 From a negatively valued urban personage in the early nineteenth century, the flâneur evolves into a central character of the panoramic literature flourishing in the 1830s and 1840s. During this period, the flâneur becomes associated with the figure of the writer, one who possesses the superior art of observation and who, like the panoramic writer himself, is capable of deciphering the rapidly changing metropolis and unifying its disparate parts.10
This association reaches its apex, of course, in the work of Charles Baudelaire, for whom the flâneur is a quintessential modern poet, a privileged yet alienated interpreter of the city. However, as Ferguson shows, by mid-century and in the context of the Haussmannisation, the flâneur becomes problematised, as he now embodies the malaise and anxiety of the artist confronting urban modernity.11 By the final decades of the nineteenth century, the association between flânerie and writing wanes, and the flâneur loses his aura of superiority and distinction. If this figure becomes democratic, it is also, to a large extent, rendered banal. As we shall see, late-nineteenth-century authors such as Maupassant used the flâneur ironically in the context of omnibus stories, uncoupling this character from writerly associations.
With this background in mind, the flâneur featured in most omnibus literature showcases his mastery over the urban and social space through narrative control. The power of the omnibus flâneur depends on his superiority in relation to his subjects (passengers, conductors and drivers), a superiority that omnibus texts establish more than one way. Unlike others who find themselves aboard public transport out of necessity, the omnibus flâneur’s journey is often quite explicitly not motivated by a need to travel; rather, it is fuelled by a desire to observe and to explain the dramas that emerge from the interactions of the passengers within the omnibus. Consider the narrator of Edouard Gourdon’s Physiologie de l’omnibus, who frames his stories as a type of sociological or ethnographic research, using the word ‘études’ (a study) or ‘étudier’ (to study). Introducing the omnibus station as his case study, he writes: ‘Sur la rive gauche de la Seine… il est un bureau d’omnibus-modèle que j’ai souvent étudié, et que j’espère étudier longtemps encore’12 (On the left bank of the Seine… there is an exemplary omnibus station that I have often studied, and that I hope to study in the future). In this context, the station is not utilised for its intended purpose – waiting for public transport – but for its observational and storytelling potential. The narrator uses the word ‘study’ again to describe the ride: ‘Comptons nos voisins et commençons nos études’13 (Let’s count our neighbours and begin our studies). He then informs his readers of his plans to dine in luxury in Neuilly, with champagne, before embarking on a leisurely stroll back home, clearly establishing his class advantage vis-à-vis other passengers and omnibus workers, for whom this would likely be unaffordable. For Gourdon, the omnibus is a vehicle of urban observation rather than transportation.
Similarly, in ‘Un voyage en omnibus’, Ernest Fouinet presents his upcoming journey as a tour for exploring what he calls the ‘vaste repertoire-omnibus’ (a vast repertoire-omnibus), the human comedy of errors he is about to observe: ‘Ainsi je me préparais à ma tournée historique, philosophique et morale, en montant le marchepied de l’omnibus solitaire de la barrière du Trône.’14 (And so I was preparing for an historical, philosophical and moral tour as I was going up the steps of a solitary omnibus at the Barrière du Trône.) The role and prerogative of the omnibus narrator are thus to bring narrative order to the chaos and dislocation of the urban environment. As Ferguson points out, ‘narrative control is a function of urban possession’.15 The omnibus interior, where passengers of different genders and social classes are thrown haphazardly together, is emblematic of urban chaos. Through his astute exploration of the social body assembled on the omnibus, the narrator-flâneur effectively achieves mastery over the otherwise disparate and anxiety-provoking crowd.
Keenly invested in investigating the everyday, fascinated with ‘the moment’, the omnibus flâneur successfully engages in what David Frisby calls ‘a form of ethnography’, excavating the hidden knowledge about the city and the metropolitan masses who inhabit it.16 Similar to Gourdon’s well-to-do flâneur-narrator, the narrator of Emile Dartès’ Contes en omnibus (1894) descends from the omnibus at the end of each conte and takes a hackney cab back to his home located near the Luxembourg Gardens. Having accomplished what he set out to do, collecting material for his tales, he can now afford the luxury of taking a cab, thus distancing himself from the other passengers – the objects of his tales – who perhaps have no such choice because of their generally lower social and economic status. Dartès privileges the experience of the ride – rather than the destination – because of the storytelling possibilities he finds within. As late as 1906, in an article about omnibus conductors, poet and dramatist François Coppée explicitly presents his omnibus journey not as a necessity but as a form of social observation: ‘Je prends, le plus souvent que je puis, les voitures publiques. Je les prends quand j’ai du temps devant moi, et surtout pour le plaisir de voir et d’observer les visages, car je ne connait encore rien de plus intéressant que la figure humaine.’17 (I take public transportation as often as I can. I take it when I have a lot of time on my hands, and especially for the pleasure of seeing and observing faces, since there is nothing more interesting than a human face.) In all these instances, the omnibus flâneur casts himself as a kind of ethnographer of local culture, an explorer observing modern Paris as if it were an exotic locale. Defamiliarising the familiar allows the narrator to take a critical look at the aspects of omnibus travel that may have initially appeared too common.
Another way in which the omnibus flâneur asserts his power is by physically positioning himself in a place from which he commands an omniscient view of the interior. Ernest Fouinet, in ‘Un voyage en omnibus’, tells us that ‘pour mieux examiner, je m’assis sur le strapontin qui est au fond. J’étais donc le président, c’est le terme dont se servent les habitués d’omnibus’18 (to better examine everything, I sat on the jump-seat that is in the back. I was thus the president: that’s the term used by regular omnibus passengers). Here Fouinet repeatedly insists on making visible the power structures that place him literally above the others, conferring authority on his observations.19 This superior position affords him a totalising, even panoptic view: ‘Je suis président: je vois de haut. Chef d’orchestre, régisseur de la troupe dramatique de l’omnibus, aucun son faux, aucun mauvais geste ne m’échappe’20 (I am president: I see from above. Orchestra conductor, director of the omnibus theatre troupe – no false note or gesture can escape my eye). Beyond the spatial positioning of the omnibus flâneur, his power and presumption to narrate are predicated upon his often explicitly stated unrivalled capacity for social observation: a ‘professional decipherer’ (to use Martina Lauster’s term), he knows how to read the crowd, and thus no false sound or wrong gesture escapes his critical gaze.21
The omnibus flâneur thus emerges as an urban type in his own right. Through his astute and frequently satirical storytelling, the omnibus flâneur establishes his authority to control both the stories and their subjects. At once part of the omnibus crowd and above it, his main task and prerogative are to interpret and render legible the often-chaotic space of the modern public conveyance and, beyond it, the modern city itself. Indeed, numerous works of popular literature deployed omnibus travel as a way to represent the changing city of Paris.
In Le Diable à Paris (1846), Balzac invites his reader on a journey to explore the Parisian boulevards: ‘Maintenant prenons notre vol comme si nous étions en omnibus, et suivons ce fleuve, cette seconde Seine sèche, étudions-en la physionomie’.22 (Now let us take our flight as if we were in an omnibus, and let us follow this river – this other Seine that is dry – and let us study its physiognomy). Balzac’s use of the omnibus metaphor suggests that the omnibus ride was an established trope that furnished writers with an ideal vehicle for depicting Paris, and one that offered readers a textual guided tour of streets, buildings and monuments. Omnibus literature teems with narrators and characters who embark on journeys through the streets of Paris, describing the neighbourhoods and landmarks they behold from the windows.
Indeed, descriptions of Paris through the device of omnibus travel became a regular component of the omnibus repertoire. As early as 1829, Madame de Flesselles’s posthumously published didactic guide to Paris for young visitors, Les jeunes voyageurs dans Paris, uses this device to describe and explain famous Parisian monuments that young protagonists observe from the vehicle – an educational agenda conveyed through the playful medium of the omnibus ride. Similarly, an anonymous 1869 guidebook, Paris en omnibus, uses travel along the thirty-one omnibus lines as the book’s organising principle. Each chapter of this pocket-size book is structured around a particular itinerary. The author sets out to create a panoramic and encyclopedic vision of the city:
Noter, - dans un style simple et même familier, à l’occasion, – la physionomie de Paris, celle de ses différents quartiers, celle de ses monuments, celle de ses rues anciennes ou modernes; noter cette physionomie, non pas seulement au point de vue des allures, des mœurs, des habitudes, de l’industrie ou de commerce de tel ou tel quartier; rechercher quand il y a intérêt la physionomie ancienne, et même quelquefois l’histoire, mais l’histoire que tout le monde connaît et non celle qui se cache dans les manuscrits poudreux des premiers âges.23
(To note – in a simple and occasionally even colloquial style – the physiognomy of Paris, that of its different neighbourhoods, its monuments, its old and new streets. To study this physiognomy from the point of view of appearance, customs, habits, industry and commerce of each neighbourhood. To research, when needed, its former appearance and even history – the history that everyone knows, rather than the one that’s buried in dusty manuscripts from the olden days).
The trope of omnibus travel allows this narrator to collect and organise images of the recently Haussmannised Paris, as he painstakingly describes what he sees from the omnibus window. As an urban historian and ethnographer, he offers detailed accounts of each neighbourhood, its character and its monuments, as well as small details of everyday life. In depicting the dramatically changing city, the narrator brings out the differences and tensions between the old and the new, the past and the present, just as he emphasises the distinctly modern nature of his writing enterprise, one that privileges ‘l’histoire que tout le monde connaît’ (the history that everyone knows), befitting the modernity of the omnibus itself.
Written in the present tense, Paris en omnibus recreates in language the physical experience of touring the city from the vehicle. The narrator-observer addresses readers directly as if they were at his side, as he points out various monuments and asks them to ‘look’ along with him:
Nous voici sur la Place de la Concorde; vous la connaissez de reste, aussi les Champs-Élysées. … Au point de vue de la majesté, observez un moment cette interminable avenue, la plus belle entrée de Paris. Au bout est l’Arc-de-Triomphe, et, à travers son portique, vous apercevez la statue de Napoléon Ier debout au sommet du plateau de Courbevoie. Au point de vue simplement pittoresque, remarquez, je vous prie, cette nuée continuelle de voiture qui montent ou descendent l’avenue des Champs-Élysées.24
(Here we are at the Place de la Concorde; you know it well, along with the Champs-Elysées. … Observe for a moment this majestic, never ending avenue, the most beautiful entryway to Paris. At the end, there is the Arc de Triomphe, and, through its portico, you can catch sight of the statue of Napoleon I standing at the top of the Courbevoie plateau. If you would like to see something simply picturesque, ladies and gentlemen, please note the continuing flow of carriages that ride up and down the Champs-Elysées.)
Beyond this, the narrator explains the capacity of both the omnibus-vehicle and the omnibus-text to encompass the city as a transparent and visible whole, and the ambition of the omnibus-text to render it legible: ‘Paris en omnibus – du moins nous le pensons – est tout aussi lisible pour le lecteur qui veut rester chez lui; seulement pour celui-ci, ce sera Paris dans un fauteuil, mais le lecteur n’en aura pas moins sous les yeux tous les aspects de la grande ville’25 (Paris en omnibus – at least that’s what we think – can be understood by the reader who wants to stay at home; only for him it will be Paris in an armchair, yet he will nonetheless see all the aspects of the big city right before his eyes). In other words, the text and the city, the reader and the urban stroller, become one and the same. The reader can experience the city in real time by reading the omnibus-text just as well as by riding the omnibus-vehicle.
An 1867 thirty-one-volume series of guides to Paris by Lasserre (Paris en omnibus, itinéraire pittoresque, historique et industriel, likely produced for that year’s World’s Fair) uses a similar structure: each volume follows the itinerary of one of the omnibus lines in order to depict city sights. The conceit of one volume, for example, is that the narrator describes aloud what he sees from the omnibus for the benefit of other passengers, capitalising on having a captive and ever changing audience:
Voilà, me dis-je, la chair véritablement populaire que je cherchais depuis si longtemps, la chair mouvante où se succède un auditoire sans cesse renouvelé, un auditoire qui peut vous donner son temps et vous prêter son oreille, un auditoire que vous pouvez désennuyer en l’occupant, que vous charmerez en l’instruisant. Auditoire immense comme la ville elle-même, auditoire universel et démocratique dans le meilleur sens du mot, car le riche et le pauvre, l’avocat, l’homme de lettres, l’artisan se rencontrent tous sur cet égalitaire terrain.26
(Here, I said to myself, is a really popular carriage for which I have been searching for a long time. The audience here succeeds one another constantly, and is endlessly renewed, an audience able to lend you its time and its ear, an audience you can entertain, keep busy, that you will enchant and educate all at once. An audience as big as the city itself, universal and democratic in the best sense of the word; everyone – the rich and the poor, a solicitor, a man of letters and an artisan – all meet on this egalitarian terrain.)
This innovative technique in Lasserre’s text and other such guidebooks brings together visual and verbal modes of perception and collapses temporal distance between past and present, producing the effect of spatial presence for the reader.27
Still other writers adopted the device of the public transport journey to describe and understand the city. Ernest Fouinet’s ‘Un voyage en omnibus’ is explicitly structured as a journey between the two landmarks of the title: barrière du Thrône and barrière de l’Étoile.28 The narrator provides a running commentary on the sites and curiosities he observes as the vehicle crosses the entire length of the city’s right bank from east to west, wondering, for instance, about the origin of the ‘appelation étrange’ (strange name) of the rue Picpus, or noting the famous Elephant statue on the Place de la Bastille.29 Likewise, in Victor Fournel’s 1858 meditation on flânerie, Ce qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris, the narrator uses the omnibus passenger’s vantage point to describe shop signs and posters visible through the windows as the vehicle makes its way across the city. Observations of such seemingly banal sights enable him to bring out the beauty of the quotidian, to ‘découvrir le beau côté des choses’30 (discover the beautiful side of things). His verbalised journey through the urban landscape presents the city as a legible text, open to deciphering and interpretation.
The omnibus journey was thus established as a way to textually explore Paris in urban literature from the 1830s through the 1860s and became a veritable topos in later decades of the nineteenth century. We find it most prominently in the writings of Octave Uzanne. Although this fin-de-siècle writer is especially known for his interest in fashion and for his involvement with book culture, he was also deeply engaged with the themes of modern locomotion.31 For Uzanne the omnibus represented both a relic of the past and a prism through which to reflect upon questions of tradition and modernity and the ways in which these two intertwined. What is more, Uzanne consciously exploited topoi of omnibus travel developed in the earlier omnibus literature in order to convey nostalgia for the past. At the same time, by reusing omnibus imagery recognisable from the literature of earlier decades, he recovered and perpetuated the omnibus as a mode of representing the city and its social landscape. The omnibus remained a metaphor for the literature of the city even as it was soon to become obsolete as a mode of transportation.32
Consider, for instance, Uzanne’s 1900 article ‘Omnibus de Paris’ from Le Monde Moderne. The piece opens with a reflection on travel as pastime, stating that for many, exploring their own city is far superior to other kinds of travel: ‘Nombreux sont les voyageurs de Paris pour Paris, qui, épris d’observation personnelle, et d’explorations inédites, estiment pouvoir découvrir tout en une ville’33 (Numerous are travellers from Paris to Paris who, enamoured with personal observation and previously unseen explorations, reckon that they can discover everything in one city.) Like earlier commentators, Uzanne’s narrator embarks on a kind of ethnographic journey of discovery via the omnibus. It offers him a superior vantage point for urban observation: ‘Nous n’avons qu’à regarder pour tout découvrir et observer sur un simple parcours d’omnibus’34 (All you need to do is look to discover and observe everything during a simple omnibus ride). Lamenting that the emergence of mass tourism trivialised travel to far-flung places, he proposes that one may as well explore Paris instead: ‘il nous reste la possibilité d’aiguiser nos observations sur les choses pittoresques à notre portée’ (we can always sharpen our observation skills on the picturesque within our reach). In fact, Uzanne claims that ‘il n’est peut-être rien de supérieur au voyage trans-parisien dans nos lourdes diligences urbaines’35 (there is perhaps nothing better than a trans-Parisian voyage in our heavy urban carriages). Through recycling of the omnibus voyage trope, Uzanne perpetuates the idea of this vehicle as a mode of ‘looking out’.
The impériale offered the omnibus narrator a different vantage point. Once again, contemporary writers understood well the poetic potential of this method of seeing the city. In Paris-en-omnibus (1854), Taxile Delord evokes Victor Hugo’s famous description of Paris in Notre-Dame de Paris, proposing a competing view of the city from the impériale: ‘Un grand poète a donné une description de Paris à vol d’oiseau. Quel charmant chapitre ne ferait-on pas intitulé: Paris du haut d’une impériale d’omnibus! Car le boulevard, depuis la Madeleine jusqu’à la Bastille, c’est le vrai Paris, c’est Paris tout entier avec ses théâtres, ses cercles, ses cafés, ses promeneurs, ses femmes élégantes, sa population bariolée!’36 (A great poet gave us a bird’s-eye-view description of Paris. One could write a charming chapter called Paris from the upper deck of the omnibus! For the boulevard, from Madeleine to Bastille, is the real Paris, the Paris with all the theatres, rings, cafés, ramblers, elegant women and all its colourful inhabitants!) The impériale also allowed the narrator to peek voyeuristically inside the open windows of the buildings that line the streets, as we see in François Coppée’s 1902 article ‘Croquis parisiens: l’omnibus’. Here Coppée nostalgically recalls his travels on the impériale in his youth, travels that he claims later inspired his interest in writing about the poor whose lives he could glean through the windows:
Ici, on dinait en famille, sous la suspension, tous les nez baissés dans la fumée de la soupe. Plus loin, un couple s’était déjà levé de table et mis à l’aise, et l’homme, à bras de chemise, fumait sa pipe, accoudé à la fenêtre auprès de sa bourgeoise, en camisole. Dans chaque intérieur, un détail, rapidement aperçu – une machine à coudre, deux verres sales près d’une bouteille, des livres sur une planche, un portrait d’homme célèbre accroché au mur – révélait toute une existence.37
(Here, you see a family dining under a ceiling light, all noses inhaling the fragrance of the soup. Further on, a couple that has already left the table and made themselves comfortable, a man in shirtsleeves smoking a pipe, leaning out the window next to his spouse in a nightshirt. In each apartment, a detail quickly noticed – a sewing machine, two dirty glasses next to a bottle, some books on a shelf, a famous man’s portrait on the wall – revealed life in its entirety.)
The fleeting images that the narrator glimpses through the windows supply him with material for storytelling; future stories will emerge from such details, like a pair of dirty glasses on the table, or a sewing machine. Here the omnibus is presented as a conduit to a kind of (hidden) knowledge, otherwise inaccessible.
In his 1885 short story ‘Le père Mongilet’, Guy de Maupassant complicates the by then accepted tropes of the omnibus flâneur and impériale travel as a way of exploring the city. Although the eponymous protagonist engages in flânerie, he is not a typical flâneur: a man of quality, merit and with a keen sense of vision. Here the story seems to take a mocking view of the flâneur figure: the old Mongilet is no poet, but an ordinary office clerk, one of many populating Maupassant’s œuvre. There is nothing remarkable or incisive about this character – even his comically sartorial name underscores his banality, and he possesses none of the superiority of a mid-century flâneur. Here Maupassant seems to ironically appropriate the flâneur figure and his presumptive elevated artistic status by replacing him with this unexceptional character, thus subverting the figure of the omnibus flâneur with which the reader would have been familiar.
Yet flânerie is precisely the activity in which Mongilet engages from the impériale, where he regularly spends his leisure time: ‘je grimpe sur mon impériale, j’ouvre mon ombrelle, et fouette cocher. Oh ! J’en vois, des choses, et plus que vous, allez ! Je change de quartier. C’est comme si je faisais un voyage à travers le monde, tant le peuple est différent d’une rue à une autre. Je connais mon Paris mieux que personne’38 (And then I climb up on top of the omnibus, open my umbrella and off we go. Oh, I see lots of things, more than you, I bet! I change neighbourhoods. It is as though I were taking a journey across the world, people are so different from one street to another. I know my Paris better than anyone). Thanks to a ride on the impériale, Mongilet traverses the city not only geographically but also socially, as he gains privileged access – however fleeting – to neighbourhoods that people of modest station such as himself rarely penetrate.
In addition to his ironic treatment of the flâneur figure, Maupassant adds a twist to the trope of ‘looking out’ by reversing it: while the riders on the impériale enjoy the view of the city, the pedestrians, café-goers and people looking out of their apartment windows enjoy the view of the impériale riders. If the omnibus passengers are looking out on to the city, then the city is looking back at them, collapsing the divide between spectator and spectacle. Mongilet peers through the windows in order to witness dramas of domestic life: ‘Ce qu’on voit de choses là-dedans, d’un homme qui crie; on rigole en passant devant les coiffeurs qui lâchent le nez du monsieur tout blanc de savon pour regarder dans la rue.’39 (You would not believe what one sees in there at a glance. You can guess a scene simply by seeing the face of a man shouting; you are amused on passing by a barber’s shop to see the barber leave his customer all covered with foam to look out on to the street.) I would like to dwell for a minute on this fleeting image, which perfectly captures the complexities of modern urban experience. If Mongilet looks inside a barbershop, voyeuristically seeking pleasure in random snapshots of everyday life, the barber returns his gaze, attracted by the sight of the vehicle and its passengers. Both Mongilet and the barber, the omnibus and the shop, are part of the modern urban spectacle, one in which the subject and the object of the gaze become interchangeable, and the boundaries between spectacle and spectator are irrevocably blurred. Such blurring is even more evident when we turn to another key aspect of the omnibus repertoire: the study of the omnibus interior.
‘Semblable à certains fruits dont l’écorce est rude, peu agréable à l’œil, et le Cœur savoureux et parfumé, l’omnibus renferme tous ses trésors, tout son intérêt sous sa carcasse’ (Like that fruit that has a harsh and disagreeable exterior, but delicious and fragrant flesh, the omnibus conceals all its treasures, all its significance inside its frame), proclaims Gourdon in the Physiologie de l’omnibus.40 Indeed, if the topos of omnibus travel is often used to describe cityscapes and to give the reader a sense of the immediate in experiencing the city, the true object of fascination is the passengers assembled inside. As a setting, the omnibus is unique in that it allows a writer to gather a wide variety of characters and plot lines within a contained space. The stream of passengers of different sexes and classes who come and go, the endless variety of human types, the vicissitudes and permutations of their often fraught interactions with each other and the fleeting glimpses of their life stories provide priceless material to the storyteller. Authors explicitly articulated the literary value of the omnibus as a space of social observation, and the stories of what transpires aboard constitute a key aspect of nineteenth-century omnibus repertoire.
Edouard Gourdon, for example, declares that the omnibus station (bureau d’omnibus) is far superior to other public city spaces (such as cafés, restaurants or theatres) as a setting for social observation: ‘Que si, à votre arrivée dans un bureau de correspondance, vous jetez les yeux sur les personnages qui vous entourent, j’ose vous promettre, pour peu que vous ayez la bosse de l’observation, une galerie de portraits que vous chercheriez vainement autre part et des charges qui danseront longtemps dans votre esprit.’41 (When, upon arriving at the omnibus station, you look at all the characters that surround you, I would bet you that in the event that you have a knack for observation, you will find a gallery of portraits and caricatures you would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere that will be rattling around in your mind for a long time.) The passengers here are presented as objects of scrutiny – characters, portraits – and also of satire, as the word ‘caricatures’ indicates, inviting in advance the reader’s judgement and laughter. What distinguishes the omnibus (and omnibus station) is that the people assembled there are thrown together by chance and by necessity, rather than by choice; and so the interactions among them promise to be livelier than elsewhere.
Offering a more global vision, Emmeline Raymond notes in ‘L’Omnibus’, from La Mode illustrée (1862), that the omnibus contains a representative and comprehensive sample of the entire Parisian society, a modern-day Noah’s ark:
L’omnibus parisien est l’arche moderne; si un cataclysme quelconque venait à engloutir Paris, en respectant les omnibus qui sillonnent en tous sens, on retrouverait dans le personnel qu’ils contiennent la plupart des types humains. Toutes les races du globe, toutes les classes de la société, comme un flot continu, sans cesse renouvelé, passent dans ces voitures consacrées à tout le monde, ainsi que leur nom en fait foi.42
(The Parisian omnibus is a modern-day ark. If one day a cataclysm engulfed Paris but spared the omnibuses that run in all directions, you would find most human types among its passengers. All races of the world, all social classes pass through these vehicles in a continuous flow that is constantly renewed – vehicles destined for all, as inscribed in their name.)
Raymond somewhat hyperbolically conjures up an image of the vehicle that encompasses ‘tout le monde’ and highlights the ever changing composition of the interior (‘sans cesse renouvelé’). Yet this hyperbole is typical of the nineteenth-century conception of the ‘omni-ness’ of the omnibus, of its capacity to contain all of society’s elements, even the most unexpected. Even Raymond’s assertion about racial diversity, which may at first appear far-fetched, is in fact corroborated by a nearly contemporaneous caricature by Daumier depicting a Turco soldier from North Africa surrounded by curious Parisians on a crowded omnibus (Figure 2.1). The image, inspired by a real-life regiment of Turco soldiers stationed near Paris in 1859, portrays the Turco soldier in exotic garb and typically exaggerated fashion, his extreme blackness contrasting with the whiteness of his fellow passengers, whose reactions range from fear (the little girl recoiling from him) to curiosity (two women leaning toward him). The image presents the omnibus as a space that throws the French and the foreigner together yet at the same time highlights their differences and keeps them apart.43
Les peintres y notent des expressions de physionomies variées, des attitudes, des détails de mouvements, des colorations des costumes à la mode, et les romanciers y découvrent de nombreux types vivants en qui ils incarnent leurs héroïnes; car il est peu d’endroits où l’observation des êtres soit plus facile et moins indiscrète.44
(There, artists find varied facial expressions, attitudes, details of movements, colours of fashionable clothing; novelists discover numerous real-life types upon which they model their heroines; for there are few other places where observing people is easier and less indiscreet.)
Through the use of vocabulary that characterised earlier texts of urban observation – ‘physionomies’, ‘types’, ‘observation’ – Uzanne both evokes the conventions of panoramic literature and implicitly inscribes his own text within this tradition. He introduces a character he calls ‘un voyageur-amateur’, who can clearly trace his lineage to the omnibus flâneur of the 1830s and 1840s, and who undertakes the journey because of the omnibus’s potential as a space of observation, noting once again that this is where society in its entirety is gathered:
Toute la société s’y trouve plus ou moins bien échantillonnée, et l’observateur ne tarde pas à entrer en contact avec chacun des sujets qui peu à peu révèlent leur individualité par leurs gestes, leur langage, leurs façons de réclamer la correspondance, de payer, de lire le journal ou de descendre de voiture.45
(All of society is more or less represented there, and an observer can quickly come into contact with each of the subjects who, little by little, reveal their personality through gestures, language, the way they ask for a transfer, pay the fare, read the newspaper or alight from the vehicle.)
Echoing Baudelaire’s famous description of the flâneur’s experience of the crowd in ‘Les Foules’,46 Uzanne depicts the interaction of the omnibus flâneur with other passengers as a way to commune with the masses: ‘au lieu de se concentrer en soi, il s’extériorise en entrant dans la vibration d’une collectivité d’individus d’autant plus intéressants qu’ils restent davantage dans le mystère de leur anonymat’47 (instead of focusing on himself, he exteriorises by joining the community of individuals who are that much more interesting because they maintain the mystery of their anonymity). Here Uzanne revisits classic themes of modernity – crowds, anonymity – in order to draw a connection between past and present. And like his predecessors writing in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, he sets out to render legible the human ‘text’ he encounters on the omnibus.
Indeed, explicit references to reading and interpreting the social body gathered aboard the vehicle are a key aspect of the omnibus repertoire. The omnibus passengers, who embody the city in all its diversity, constitute the most important ‘text’ to be read. This aspiration to lay bare and render legible the complex fabric of the city’s social composition is evident in numerous caricatures that represent the cross-section of the omnibus interior, exposing the passengers to the viewer’s direct scrutiny (Figures 2.2 and 2.3). In works of popular literature, it is by focusing on small gestures, details of dress or seemingly insignificant interactions among the passengers, or by classifying passengers and omnibus workers into easily recognisable types, that narrators guide readers in understanding the complexity of the modern city.
In Gourdon’s Physiologie de l’omnibus, for example, the narrator boasts his talent for interpreting minute signs and for deciphering the social and moral standing of omnibus passengers. He informs the reader that on a weekday it is easy to distinguish passengers from different neighbourhoods and thus from different social classes based on their attire and demeanour: ‘Le voyageur de la Chaussée d’Antin n’est pas celui du Marais; le voyageur du Faubourg Saint-Germain n’est pas plus celui de la banlieue que celui de la Cité.’48 (The passenger from the Chaussée d’Antin is not the same as the one from the Marais; the passenger from the Faubourg Saint-Germain is not the same as the one from the suburbs or the Cité.) However, on Sundays their sartorial differences are no longer obvious, and thus the lines of propriety often become scandalously blurred. The omnibus flâneur’s sharp eye and keen intelligence are required to distinguish a woman of easy virtue behind the veneer of proper dress: ‘L’œil exercé de l’observateur peut seul alors distinguer dans la foule les personnages qu’il cherche.’49 (Only a well-trained observer’s eye can tell the difference among a crowd of characters.) In this instance, what betrays the lorette (a woman of dubious virtue), he tells us, are her dirty ears, only half-concealed behind the fashionable chapeau Herbaut.50 The omnibus narrator thus positions himself not only as an excellent interpreter of social clues but also as someone who upholds the established moral order by exposing those attempting to mask their lack of social and moral standing behind fashionable clothing.
In another instance, it is by ‘reading’ another passenger’s face that Gourdon’s narrator deduces her aristocratic origins, despite her modest dress: ‘C’est une femme de cinquante ans; la régularité de ses traits, la finesse de son profil, révèlent une de ces noblesses d’ancienne date, dont nous ne rencontrons plus les types que dans les portraits des règnes de Louis XIV et Louis XV.’ (It was a woman fifty years of age. The regularity of her facial traits, the delicacy of her profile revealed an old-line nobility, the kind we now only see in the portraits dating back to the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV.) The woman’s mere presence aboard the public conveyance suggests that her fortunes have suffered dramatically in the new post-Revolutionary world order. Her countenance and comportment lead Gourdon’s narrator to evoke the entire traumatic history of France following the Revolution of 1789. This is not simply a story of one woman who has likely gone from riding glamorously in ‘un carrosse blasonné’ (emblazoned carriage) in her youth to breathing ‘l’air respiré par seize personnes plus ou moins polies et bien nées, qu’elle ne connaît pas’ (the air inhaled by sixteen strangers more or less polite, more or less well born with whom she is not acquainted). The visual contrast between the mother and her daughter, seated side by side on the omnibus bench, conjures up the stark contrast between modernity and history, between past and present: ‘C’est l’histoire d’une societé nouvelle greffée sur les troncs mutilés d’une societé ancienne.’51 (It is the history of a new society grafted upon the mutilated trunk of society of the past.) Gourdon not only deftly extracts an individual history of this one passenger by treating her as a legible space, a page to be read, but also gestures to the history of an entire generation of aristocratic daughters who fell down the social ladder in the aftermath of the Revolution. In what Martina Lauster called ‘the dynamic interplay between surface and depth’, Gourdon expands his observations of the everyday, based on reading the surfaces (here human faces and figures, gathered aboard an omnibus), into a deeper discussion of historical forces agitating France at the time.52
In a similar fashion, Lucien Griveau structures ‘En omnibus’ to showcase the narrator’s superior talent for observation and interpretation. The story focuses on the misfortunes of a young woman and her young child left destitute after the death of her husband. But even before the young woman tells her story to a compassionate voisine d’omnibus – and before the narrator recounts it to the reader – he infers (or imagines?) her life story by merely looking at her: ‘Jeune, mais l’air fatigué, elle avait au front une ride précoce. … des traits plus fins que n’en ont généralement les filles du peuple. Mais la figure allongée, alanguie par les veilles et portant la trace des souffrances qu’amènent l’abandon et la misère, laissait deviner quelque catastrophe qui, survenues peut-être au moment où elle allât être mère, l’avait fanée avant l’âge.’53 (Young but tired-looking, she had an untimely wrinkle across her forehead. … her face was more delicate than usually found among working-class women. But her thin face, withered by sleepless nights and bearing traces of suffering brought on by neglect and poverty, let you surmise a tragedy which perhaps struck her when she was about to become a mother, and which aged her before her time.) As a true physionomiste, the narrator asserts his ability to read the young woman’s appearance for clues of not only her social class but her entire life, peeking behind the surface of her sad countenance. The rest of the story is then spun out of this brief moment of observation. Just as the young woman is a readable object of the narrator’s gaze, the story of her misfortunes becomes the object of his tale.
What makes such interactions particularly seductive for the urban observer is their voyeuristic overtones. Indeed, many private human dramas played out on an omnibus are often not intended for the narrator’s eyes or ears. Yet he derives a particular pleasure from the fact that the stories are surreptitiously gleaned from his fellow passengers. Seizing on the paradoxical nature of the omnibus interior that is at once public and curiously intimate, Griveau articulates the narrator’s ambition and his powerful ability to uncover the secrets of other people’s lives: ‘Peut-être est-ce quelque drame intime qui vient s’asseoir à coté de vous. En coudoyant toutes ces existences parties de tous les bouts de l’horizon pour se rencontrer à ce point d’intersection banal, il me semble toujours être au milieu de livres fermés dont j’aurais envie de soulever la couverture.’54 (Perhaps it is an intimate drama that just sat beside you. By rubbing shoulders with all these lives that came from all corners of the world in order to meet at this banal junction, I always feel like I am surrounded by closed books, the covers of which I wish to lift.) The narrator’s role thus consists in rendering transparent and visible that which otherwise remains hidden and private: he is the one who lifts ‘la couverture’ and lets the reader peek under. Here Griveau seems to be playing on the double meaning of ‘couverture’, both ‘book cover’ and ‘blanket’, or ‘bedspread.’ The titillation of this ‘couverture’ about to be lifted is suggestive of the sexual charge that inflects both the omnibus interior where passengers congregate close together, and the omnibus narratives that delight in exploring it.
The final aspect of the omnibus repertoire focusing on the interior is the typologies of passengers and omnibus workers. Classification of social types based on observations was a hallmark of urban literature of the 1830s and 1840s. By simplifying the multiplicity of human experiences to what Judith Wechsler calls ‘the satirical presentation of typical characters in everyday situations’, 55 omnibus texts sought to make sense of complex modern phenomena and to control the (potentially menacing) crowds. Unlike the genre of physiologies, where each text focuses on a single social type (e.g. Physiologie de l’épicier, Physiologie de la lorette), or works such as Les Français peints par eux-mêmes, which devote a separate chapter to each type (e.g. ‘La Femme adultère’, ‘L’Epicier’), omnibus literature is a kind of super-physiologie: the concept of the omnibus brings together a broad variety of social types. Once again, Gourdon’s Physiologie is exemplary in how it presents a number of types the narrator encounters aboard the omnibus or at the station. He first affirms a kind of friendly complicity with the intended reader, presumably male and bourgeois like himself, to whose observation skills he directly appeals: ‘vous le reconnaitrez sans peine’56 (you will recognise him right away). One such type is ‘le monsieur aux cheveux gris’ (gentleman with grey hair), an older gentleman who spends ‘les cinq sixième de sa vie en omnibus’ (five sixths of his life on an omnibus) because he creepily enjoys the proximity of female passengers whose knees he can touch or whose handkerchiefs he can pick up: ‘Le mouvement c’est sa vie; mais au milieu du mouvement, dans ses courses perpétuelles, il a su se créer des jouissances à lui connues, une vie pleine de péripétie, d’aventures et de far-niente à la fois.’57 (Movement is his life; and in the midst of movement, during his perpetual rides, he managed to create pleasures known to him, a life full of adventures and of far-niente all at once.)
Another type we find in Gourdon is ‘un poète’ (a poet), a young man foisting his unpublished writings on unsuspecting female passengers. But Gourdon also ironises the very concept of type when he introduces ‘Le monsieur qui fait passer l’argent’ (gentleman who passes the change): ‘Le monsieur qui fait passer l’argent est un des bons types de l’omnibus. Il est jeune ou vieux, l’âge n’y fait rien. S’il a vingt-cinq ans, il porte des gants citrouille, et l’on est bien tenté de croire que c’est pour mieux les montrer qu’il avance sans cesses la main. … S’il a de quarante à soixante ans, le monsieur qui fait passer l’argent porte des gants de filoselle ou n’en porte pas du tout.’58 (Gentleman who passes the change is a good omnibus type. He is young or old; the age doesn’t matter. If he is 25 years old, he wears pumpkin-coloured gloves, and one is tempted to believe that it is in order to better show them off that he keeps extending his hand. If he is between 40 and 60 years old, the gentleman who passes the change wears embroidered gloves or no gloves at all.) While appearing to fit neatly into a ‘type’, he can in fact be anybody.
Emmeline Raymond also uses the omnibus setting to sketch a series of urban types: a polite gentlemen who helps to pass the fare and assists ladies on and off the vehicle; then his foil, ‘l’égoïste renfrogné’ (surly egoist), who is an inconsiderate brute (‘qui essaie de se caser selon ses goûts, sans tenir compte de ses voisins; il ouvre ou ferme la vitre sans consulter la convenance d’autrui; il se pose en biais, il se penche, il s’accoude etc’ (who tries to get comfortable without regard to his neighbours; he opens or closes the window without asking if it’s convenient to others; he leans over, he stretches out, he sticks out his elbows, etc)); followed by ‘l’homme important’ (a man of importance), obsessed with making an impression on his fellow passengers. Female passengers are divided in two categories: ‘celles qui parlent et celles qui ne parlent pas’59 (those who talk and those who don’t talk). But her purpose here is different from Gourdon’s: if his types are satirical in nature, Raymond’s have clear didactic undertones. She uses descriptions of types to critique certain kinds of behaviours in a public space and to offer prescriptive models of comportment. This take on typology befits her role as the editor-in-chief of La Mode Illustrée, a fashion magazine that played a central role in the articulation of ideals of bourgeois femininity in the second half of the nineteenth century. Although her regular readership was overwhelmingly female, in this article Raymond goes beyond offering advice on proper behaviour to women only and extends it to male passengers as well.
Octave Uzanne both recycles and extends a familiar topos by developing an extensive typology, first of the different types of omnibus lines and then of their passengers. He begins by introducing different types of omnibus lines. There is, for example, ‘L’omnibus populo’, which transports primarily working-class passengers. Then there is a line that Uzanne designates as ‘demi-chic, c’est-à-dire populaire au point de départ et se mondanisant, s’embourgeoisant en arrivant au centre de Paris’ (demi-chic: that is, it is working-class at the point of departure but gentrifies when it arrives in the centre of Paris). But the omnibus that Uzanne declares his favourite is the Batignolles-Clichy–Odéon line, because it serves as a unifying link between the artistic and the aristocratic parts of Paris that are normally separated by geographic, economic and social distances; this line ‘réconcilie Montmartre avec le faubourg Saint-Germain, le quartier Latin et la rue des Martyrs’ (reconciles Montmartre with the faubourg Saint-Germain, the Latin Quarter and the rue des Martyrs). In doing so, it serves as a kind of bridge between different social worlds: ‘Le grand transurbain, qui va du second au premier théâtre français, du restaurant Foyot au Père Lathuille, du Luxembourg à la place Clichy’60 (The great trans-urban vehicle that travels from second-tier theatres to those of the first tier, from the restaurant Foyot to Père Lathuille, from Luxembourg to Place Clichy). The classification of the vehicle is followed by a detailed typology of the omnibus driver (‘le muet et le bavard’ (the mute and the chatty)), the conductor (‘le poli, le gallant, le sans-façon, le débraillé, puis l’ahuri’ (the polite, the courteous, the cavalier, the dishevelled, the halfwit)) and the passengers.61 Among the male passengers Uzanne notes ‘de grognons, d’expansifs, de familiers, d’impénétrables’62 (the grumblers, the effusives, the informals, the inscrutables). He singles out his preferred type, ‘le plate-formiste, l’amateur spécial de la plate-forme, considérant ce look-out comme le poste le plus favorable à l’observation et à l’occasion’ (the platformist, an enthusiast of the platform, who considered this look-out as a post particularly favourable to observation), a character not unlike the omnibus flâneur himself, who uses the vehicle’s landing for watching other passengers, and women in particular. As for the women passengers, Uzanne offers an unapologetically gendered typology, classifying them according to their attitudes or responses to the attention bestowed upon them by fellow male passengers:
L’indifférente, habituée aux hommages, et qui ne semble plus avoir conscience des regards qui la dévisage; puis la timide, qui ne sait où se fourrer, rougit, pâlit, prend des attitudes gauches exprimant son trouble et qui finit, pour échapper à ces yeux braqués vers elle, par feindre le sommeil ou la lecture passionnante; enfin, la coquette, qui, selon ses avantages, pose volontiers devant les objectifs, de profil ou de face, soupirant doucement, ôtant ses gants, montrant ses doigts fuselés chargés de bagues, s’appliquant à augmenter encore davantage l’admiration qu’elle sait inspirer.63
(The indifferent, one who is used to compliments, and who seems not to notice the stares she is attracting; then the shy one, who doesn’t know where to hide, who blushes, turns pale, who takes awkward poses that express her discomfort and who, in order to avoid all those eyes glued to her, ends up faking sleep or reading. Finally, the flirt, who, depending on what charms she possesses, gladly poses before the cameras, in profile or en facei, sighing gently, taking off her gloves, showing off her slender fingers adorned with rings, and seeking to amplify even more the admiration that she inspires.)
The final type Uzanne introduces is the plongeur. The plongeur is a kind of urban observer who likes to peek in the windows of apartment buildings lining the streets: ‘le voici… Plongeant dans les intérieurs des maisons, assistants aux fins diners en bras de chemises, aux lits préparés, aux étranges ombres chinoises projetées sur les rideaux lumineux des fenêtres closes, aux déshabillés imprévus, à toute la fantasmagorie de la vie des autres fortuitement surprise au passage’ (here he is… Plunging his gaze inside houses, joining fancy dinners in shirtsleeves, joining beds that are all ready, attending strange Chinese shadows projected upon drawn window curtains, catching unexpected glimpses of flesh and all the phantasmagoria of the lives of others fortuitously gleaned in passing). The omnibus provides a privileged vantage point for this visual penetration into domestic interiors. Yet, Uzanne claims (rather disingenuously), the plongeur is not a voyeur or a libertine but rather an observer interested in a broad range of human experiences: ‘Tout en fumant son cigare, dans une rêverie de digestion, il se croit un petit Asmodée pénétrant de ménage en ménage, chez le riche et chez le pauvre, partout insoupçonné, dans ces magasins ou ces entresols où chacun se croit si bien à l’abri des indiscrétions’64 (Smoking a cigar and absorbed by the digestion, he fancies himself a little Asmodeus who goes undetected to households both rich and poor, and to shops and mezzanines where one believes to be sheltered from indiscretions.) A devil-like figure who first appears in Lesage’s 1707 Le Diable boiteux, where he peeks inside Parisian houses by removing their roofs, Asmodeus was a frequent reference point for urban literature of the 1830s and 1840s. This figure encapsulated the idea of rendering visible and legible that which was otherwise hidden to the eyes of the uninitiated, revealing the city’s secrets through visual superiority. By gesturing toward this iconic figure, Uzanne inscribes his text within the lineage of earlier literature of urban observation.65
In addition to the typology of passengers, the omnibus repertoire includes that of omnibus workers, such as the conductor, the ticket master (le buraliste) and the driver, as well as of passengers.66 Like the vehicle itself, these occupations were new and modern when they began to appear in literature, and they thus elicited both fascination and discomfort. In particular, the conductor became a popular subject, providing important clues to cultural anxieties about new modes of labour and the rise of industrialisation that the omnibus emblematised. The conductor is often represented as a small, dehumanised peg in an enormous urban machine; more than any other character, he embodies the excesses of rising capitalism. For example, Charles Friès in ‘Le Conducteur d’omnibus’ (from Les Français peints par eux-mêmes), highlights the dreary monotony and repetitive nature of the conductor’s work, comparing his fate to that of a galley slave:
C’est une triste destinée que celle du conducteur d’omnibus. D’un bout de l’année à l’autre, on le voit, rivé à son marche-pied comme le forçat l’est à sa chaîne, poursuivre son éternel pèlerinage à travers les mêmes rues, les mêmes quais, les mêmes boulevards. La pluie, le vent, le froid, la grêle, rien n’arrête dans sa course ce juif errant d’un nouveau genre. Pour lui, jamais de répit ! Marche ! Marche ! tel est le cri qui bourdonne sans relâche aux oreilles de ce malheureux qu’on a plaisamment qualifié d’image vivante du repos dans le mouvement.67
(The fate of the omnibus conductor is a sad one. From the beginning of the year to the end, we see him cling to the running board like a convict to his chain, carrying on his eternal pilgrimage along the same streets, the same embankments, the same boulevards. Rain, wind, cold, hail – nothing stops in his course this new kind of Wandering Jew. For him, not a moment of rest! Go on! Go on! This is the scream that rings relentlessly in the ears of this wretched man who is pleasantly described as the picture of rest in the midst of movement.)
Taxile Delord paints a similar image of the conductor in Paris-en-omnibus, depicting him as a depressive type: ‘Je conçois la morne tristesse et l’abattement dans lesquels les conducteurs d’omnibus sont presque constamment plongés’68 (I appreciate the dreary sadness and despondency in which omnibus conductors are almost always immersed). And, as late as 1906, François Coppée devotes an entire article to the conductor in which he too bemoans his fate and praises him for deep devotion to his job. Coppée particularly admires the conductor’s endless patience and civility even when faced with the most difficult work conditions: ‘Et cela dans les pires circonstances, même sous l’averse diluvienne, quand les voyageurs à parapluie attaquent la voiture, pareils aux légionnaires romains donnant l’assaut à l’abri de leurs boucliers et exécutant la célèbre manœuvre de la tortue’69 (And this even under the worst of circumstances, even under diluvial downpour, when umbrella-wielding passengers attack the vehicle, similar to Roman legionnaires attacking under the cover of their shields and executing the famous tortoise formation.) It is as if the conductor became the receptacle of all of urban misery, aggression and anomie. Unlike many other omnibus types, the conductor is often represented with a great degree of empathy, reflecting perhaps the authors’ own anxiety about changing labour practices ushered in by modernity.
Writers from across the nineteenth century put the omnibus to literary use as a medium of social observation and a tool to render legible the changing urban environment reflective of a society in flux. These modes of writing constituted essential elements of the omnibus repertoire. Other features of this repertoire bring into relief the modern city and modernity by holding the tension between connection and estrangement, social bonds and alienation.
Connection and estrangement
The omnibus repertoire includes recurring scenarios indicative of broader visions of Parisian urban space, and what we find is two diametrically opposed approaches to the urban environment. For some, Paris was a place of alienation and disconnection, a city dominated by a breakdown of communication and social relationships, a place where inhabitants came into fleeting contact only to never see each other again. For others, on the contrary, it was a world where individual connections and felicitous chance encounters were possible and led to lasting attachments.70 It was through the figure of the omnibus that urban writers could propose these two contrasting visions of the modern city – and, more broadly, modernity – that were key to the nineteenth-century cultural imaginary. If some works of omnibus literature represented Paris as a space of estrangement, characterised by indifference, alienation and dislocation, others depicted it as a place of connection, full of (often happy) coincidences epitomising the interconnectedness of individuals of all walks of life. These two competing visions were represented by scenes of chance encounters on the omnibus, sometimes within the same text.
In the first scenario, encounters between strangers lead to a momentary connection – or the potential for connection – that lasts as long as the omnibus ride. The speed, motion, flux and anonymity associated with modern transport work to preclude deep human bonds, and so unrealised connections became a key feature of the omnibus repertoire. A vignette in Fouinet’s ‘Un voyage en omnibus’ exemplifies the vision of the city as a space of estrangement. This vignette evokes the fleeting nature of omnibus encounters as the narrator describes a beautiful young woman who boards the vehicle and immediately captures his imagination. She seems like a magical apparition: ‘Une femme aux cheveux châtains-bruns, aux yeux noirs, au teint pâle, vêtue d’une robe de mousseline claire, de couleur tendre; un petit être délicat, vaporeux, svelte créature, qu’un poète, un peintre aurait à peine besoin d’idéaliser pour en faire une bonne fée ou un ange.’71 (A woman with light-brown hair, black eyes, pale skin, clad in a light-coloured muslin dress; a delicate little person, a diaphanous, slender creature; a poet or an artist would not need to idealise her to turn her into a good fairy or an angel.) She is described as an ideal beauty with pale skin and dark hair and her clothes and the light colours of her dress suggest elegance and virtue. The young woman affects the narrator not only visually but olfactorily as well: ‘et de sa robe, de ses cheveux, de son mouchoir… montait jusqu’à moi un léger parfum de vétiver, de portugal, de violette, un parfum végétal’72 (from her dress, her hair, her handkerchief emanated a light perfume of vetiver, portugal, violet, a perfume of plants). These flowery and exotic scents stand in sharp contrast with the reality of public transport.
Fouinet’s narrator delights when their hands touch as he asks the lovely passenger to pass the fare to the conductor. When she drops the change in his hand, he vows to use it exclusively for the ‘achat d’un objet parfumé, élégant’ (the purchase of a perfumed, elegant object) such as a bottle of perfume or gloves for a ball. He then describes his anguish when a red-faced drunkard places himself too close to her: ‘Cette figure d’un rouge livide, aux traits déformés par la débauche, si près de ce visage d’une blancheur transparente. … Hideuse alliance! Un beau rayon de soleil sur une mare fangeuse! Une chenille, un scarabée sur une rose ou une sensitive.’73 (This livid, red figure, with features distorted by debauchery, so close to the transparent whiteness of her face! Hideous alliance! A beautiful ray of sun on a muddy pond! A caterpillar, a beetle on top of a rose or a mimosa.)
Eventually the anonymous beauty steps off the omnibus, and the narrator, in the throes of deep melancholy, is left to ruminate about the encounter in terms strikingly anticipating Baudelaire’s ‘A une passante’, the best-known poem of chance encounter and unrealised, unrequited urban love: ‘Pourquoi étais-je triste? Avait-elle seulement fait attention à moi? J’avais fait attention à elle, j’avais été heureux de la voir; c’en était assez pour que je regrettasse de la perdre, presque sûr de ne plus la retrouver.’ (Why was I sad? Did she even pay attention to me? I paid attention to her; I was happy to behold her; this was enough for me to regret losing her, almost certain to never see her again.) This experience of loss is by no means unique, Fouinet writes. Rather, it is emblematic of the alienation of urban life, where a momentary promise of happiness comes to naught: ‘Qui n’a pas vu passer dans sa vie, une femme dont il s’était dit:- Je l’aimerais à jamais. –Et il revenait cent fois sur le chemin où il l’avait rencontrée, et vainement toujours.’ (Is there a man who has not experienced seeing a woman pass by, thinking to himself that he could love her forever. And he would return a hundred times to the spot where he had met her, and always in vain.) Ultimately, the omnibus serves as a metaphor for life, in all its isolation and indifference: ‘O omnibus! quel philosophe tu es!’74 (Oh omnibus! You are so philosophical!). And the narrator too moves on to the next object of observation.
A whimsical short story by Paul Gavarni titled ‘Une aventure d’omnibus’ offers a satirical yet bitter view on the romantic potential of omnibus encounters.75 In this story, the protagonist, a poet named Numance, meets a beautiful, witty aristocratic lady aboard an omnibus, where both have been summoned by the Devil, who momentarily takes the conductor’s place. The poet follows the lady when she leaves the omnibus and asks her for a rendezvous, which she reluctantly grants. When Numance arrives at the assignation, he is handed a note from his beloved which reads: ‘Un des plus doux plaisirs d’une femme est de faire un regret.’76 (One of the sweetest pleasures a woman can have is to cause a regret.) While Numance is consumed with humiliation and despair (‘il crut un instant qu’il allait pleurer’ (he thought for a moment that he was going to cry)), the narrator tells us that the lady, who happens to be a duchess, has but one eye, a detail that escaped the young lover even though he was sitting right next to her on the omnibus: ‘La duchesse de Margueray est borgne du côtê droit; mais elle a le profil délicieux, et Numance était placé à sa gauche dans la voiture.’ (The duchess of Margueray was blind on the right side; but she had a lovely profile and Numance was sitting to her left in the vehicle.) The story not only exemplifies a sense of alienation, separation and the fleeting nature of romance in the urban environment but also illustrates the unknowability of others: although Numance sat right next to the lady, she remained an enigma to him, concealing her name, her social status and her deformity.77
By contrast with these plots of dislocation, alienation and romantic failure, other documents used the omnibus to illustrate their vision of the city as a space of connections, full of unexpected associations and possibilities. In this scenario, the compact area of the omnibus and the physical intimacy it creates foster human relations. As the city of Paris grew exponentially over the course of the nineteenth century, perhaps this was a way to make the growth and constant influx of population less menacing. Here I want to focus on two recurring scenarios of the omnibus repertoire: a chance meeting between a creditor and a debtor, and a romantic chance encounter leading to marriage.
The omnibus as a setting for chance meetings between a creditor and a debtor trying to dodge payment was used to comic effect across a variety of popular genres. Its first mention appears virtually at the same time as the omnibus itself, in Léon Gozlan’s 1828 poem Le Triomphe des Omnibus: ‘Cette porte béante incessamment ouverte/ Au pauvre débiteur à deux doigts de sa perte/ Quand un dur créancer, la sentence à la main,/ Escorté d’un recor, parait sur son chemin’78 (This door constantly wide open/ To a poor debtor two steps away from his downfall/ When a harsh creditor, a verdict in hand/ Blocks his way). The social worlds of the young dandy living beyond his means and the merchants who supply his luxury articles did not typically overlap, and the delinquent dandy ran no risk of ever having to face his creditors. The omnibus by its very nature, however, brought together individuals of different social strata. It thus became a convenient trap for the dandy, who usually boarded the omnibus when he lacked funds for a cab, and so was forced to confront his irate supplier under circumstances from which he cannot escape. In ‘Un voyage en omnibus’, Fouinet imagines the unfolding of this encounter as a theatrical mise-en-scène:
Un débiteur va se trouver nez à nez avec son créancier qu’il fuyait depuis un an. N’est-il pas divertissant de voir toutes les ruses pour cacher sa figure: c’est l’œil droit, c’est l’œil gauche; le nez à essuyer, un mal de dents subit qui le force à couvrir sa joue de son mouchoir; mais le créancier à la piste, qui reconnaîtrait son débiteur dans une ride comme Cuvier reconnait un animal antédiluvien dans un ossement, le créancier le saisit au collet: dialogue chaud, animé, brûlant.79
(A debtor finds himself face to face with his creditor, whom he has been avoiding for a year. Isn’t it entertaining to see all the ruses he deploys to hide his face: he turns this way and that way; a nose to blow or a sudden toothache force him to cover his cheek with a handkerchief. But the creditor on his trail recognises his debtor like Cuvier recognises an antediluvian animal in a fossil; the creditor grabs him by the collar: a heated, lively, burning dialogue ensues.)
Here the debt dodger goes to great lengths to hide from his nemesis, but the space of the omnibus does not allow this. The narrator clearly delights in the scene, which he finds ‘divertissant’ both for other riders and for readers. A visual pendant to Fouinet’s account can be found in Daumier’s 1843 caricature ‘Une Rencontre désagréable’ (Figure 2.4), featuring a fashionable young gentleman confronted by his tailor: ‘–Je ne me trompe pas! … c’est M. Alfred … pourriez-vous me dire quand vous me donnerez un acompte sur la petite note de neuf cent francs que vous me devez depuis trois ans? …. –Que le diable emporte l’omnibus et le tailleur! … j’aurais bien mieux fait de prendre un cabriolet!’ (I am not mistaken… this is Monsieur Alfred… could you please tell me when you will be so kind as to settle the little bill for 900 francs you’ve owed me for three years? … To hell with the omnibus and the tailor! … I should have taken a cab!)
The image draws a sharp visual contrast between the young man’s stylish white coat and black vest, and the tailor’s black coat and white vest, presenting them as each other’s foil. While the tall young dandy is carefully coiffed, sports fashionable accessories (the cane, the hat, elegant shoes) and dominates the image through both size and colour, the tailor literally shrinks into his seat, looking frumpy with his wrinkled clothes and balding head, as he modestly clutches his hat on his lap. The young man clearly attempts to ignore the tailor by turning his head away from his nemesis and toward his seatmate on the other side. Yet, with his hand creeping toward the dandy as if to grab him, it is the tailor who has the advantage in this situation, for the young man is obviously held captive by the moving vehicle. Daumier’s caricature visually reiterates the scenario we find in literature. Depicted as a space of connection, the omnibus throws together people belonging to different social spheres, here against one of them’s wishes.80
A different take on the omnibus as an urban space of connection involves budding romance that leads to marriage. While the omnibus was most often associated with illicit female sexuality, such as adultery and prostitution,81 the 1880s and 1890s see a veritable explosion of popular songs about strangers who fall in love during a journey, with a happy marriage to follow. We find variations on this scenario in several songs intended for cabaret and café-concert performances, such as ‘Le Conducteur et la couturière’ (1892), ‘L’Omnibus des Amours’ (1886) and ‘Les Amours d’un cocher d’omnibus’ (1886). ‘Le Conducteur et la couturière’ tells a predictable story of a romance between an omnibus conductor and a dressmaker who rides to work every morning. After months of mutual silent admiration, the two protagonists confess their love to each other. Their marriage speedily follows:
Sans plus tarder, ils s’épousèrent,
Et si tendrement ils s’aimèrent,
Qu’en trois ans il eur’ quatre enfant
Telle est l’histoire simp’e et belle
D’un’ couturièr, d’un conducteur,
Qui, s’aimant d’un amour fidèle,
Sur la ligne Panthéon-Courcelles,
Tous deux ont trouvé le bonheur!82
(Without tarrying they married
And loved each other so well
That in three years they had four kids
Such is this story, simple and lovely
Of a seamstress and a conductor
Who loved each other well
On the Pantheon-Courcelles line
They found their happiness!)
Sometimes the omnibus quite literally brings the lovers together. In ‘Un mariage en omnibus’ (1882), a young woman meets her future husband when the omnibus stops short and she stumbles into his arms: ‘J’étais près de la sonnerie,/ Près d’un jeune homme en chapeau rond,/ Assez gai de physionomie/ Soudain un choc m’envoie sur lui’83 (I was next to the bell,/ Next to a young man in a round hat,/ Looking content / Suddenly a jolt sends me toward him) (Figure 2.5). With the next jolt, it is the young man who falls into her arms. At the end of the suggestively bumpy ride, the young man helps the young lady down from the vehicle and is ready to propose: ‘Je viens de vous offrir ma main, Voulez-vous m’accorder la vôtre?’ (I just offered you my hand, /Would you grant me yours?). The song playfully if improbably suggests that the omnibus can breed lasting relationships. In ‘Mon voisin d’omnibus’ (1888), the female protagonist, on her way to visit her aunt, realises in dismay that she left her purse at home.84 An obliging young man offers to pay her fare while confessing his instant love to her: ‘Mon voisin m’a dit tout bas: je t’aime! Voilà six sous’ (My seatmate whispers quietly: I love you! Here are 6 sous). The young lady never makes it to her aunt that day, and although the lyrics imply that their love is improperly consummated (‘Et je pris le parti de rire, en remettant au lendemain, D’aller chez ma tante’ (I decided to have fun, and postponed the visit to my aunt till the next day)), the image that accompanies the song depicts a wedding, suggesting that all ends well, and social order is restored85 (Figure 2.6). The proliferation of songs thematising chance encounters on the omnibus testifies to just how ingrained this idea was in the cultural imagination by the end of the century.
From the first days of omnibus travel, authors of urban literature used the vehicle to engage with the city in transition and with a dramatically shifting social landscape. The tropes and figures examined in this chapter emerged as part of the vibrant panoramic literature of the 1830s and 1840s that deployed the omnibus as a mode of representation, a form through which to capture multiple aspects of the modern and the everyday. Writers across genres and styles adopted the omnibus as a way to communicate their vision of Paris. The omnibus penetrated the French literary and cultural imagination, becoming an integral concept and topos for addressing key questions about contemporary life. And nineteenth-century writers understood well the value of the omnibus, capitalising on it to appeal to popular audiences. Emile Dartès proclaimed that had the omnibus not existed, it would have been necessary to invent it: ‘Ainsi je conclurai en disant que l’institution des omnibus parisiens est une noble institution qu’il faudrait inventer s’il n’existait pas.’86 (And so I conclude by saying that the institution of the Parisian omnibus is a noble one, and had it not existed already it would have had to be invented.)
If the omnibus texts share a common repertoire, they also share cultural and social preoccupations key to understanding nineteenth-century French society: social mobility and elusive class equality, as well as shifting gender relations and the impact of the changing urban environment on women’s place in society. As we shall see in the following chapters, the omnibus was a figure through which different forms of popular literature grappled with tensions generated by these questions.
Plate 6 Victor Ratier, ‘Echantillons de moeurs Parisiennes. Un banc d’Omnibus de la Madelaine à la porte St Martin. Pour deux… Fait historique, dessiné d’après nature. Maris honnêtes garde à vous!’. 1829.