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.
Mais tante, je n’ai besoin de personne. Je suis venue toute seule.
-Seule! A pied? En voiture?
-Non, tante, dans Panthéon-Courcelles.
-Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, que Claude est coupable….1
Colette, Claudine à Paris
When 17-year-old Claudine, the eponymous protagonist of Colette’s 1901 novel, informs her prim and proper Aunt Cœur that she arrived at her house not only unaccompanied but also by way of the Panthéon–Courcelles omnibus, her aunt is profoundly scandalised. Why, we may wonder, did Aunt Cœur find it so inappropriate for a young woman from a respectable family to ride on an omnibus alone in 1901? After all, by that time the omnibus had been a feature of everyday city life for decades. And from numerous references in literary and visual culture, as well as newspaper accounts and conduct manuals, we know that women of all classes, including respectable bourgeoises, used the omnibus to move about the city.
The omnibus was by law available to men and women of all classes from the time when it was first launched; in the 1830s and 1840s, it was indeed one of the few public places where, at least in theory, respectable women could find themselves sitting next to men without risking their reputation. Moreover, nineteenth-century conduct manuals included sections on proper behaviour for both sexes aboard the omnibus, thus suggesting that this practice was normalised fairly early. For example, a manual published in 1829, the year following the launch of the omnibus, appealed to both ‘gentlemen’ and ‘ladies’ to conduct themselves according to principles of French chivalry. Gentlemen were asked to cede their seat to a lady should she find herself in a less comfortable one: ‘La galanterie française demande qu’un cavalier offre poliment la sienne (la place) à une dame qui en aurait une moins commode; car il paraîtrait inconvenant qu’un homme se trouvât assis dans le fond, tandis que celle-ci siègerait sur les banquettes du devant.’ (French gallantry requires that a gentleman offers his seat to a lady who has a less comfortable one; it would be inappropriate for a man to occupy a seat in the back while a lady has a seat in front.) Ladies were admonished not to be overly exacting or hold particular expectations of male passengers: ‘Les dames de leur côté ne doivent pas se montrer trop exigeantes, ni trop mettre à l’épreuve la complaisance des hommes.’ (Ladies, for their part, should neither be too demanding nor test too much the gentlemen’s readiness to oblige.)2 And in the 1860s, Emmeline Raymond, a prominent voice in shaping urban bourgeois femininity, penned an article in La Mode illustrée in which she not only discussed different female types found aboard, but also dispensed advice to her female readers about proper behaviour during the omnibus journey:
Comme l’on ne connaît pas ses compagnes et ses compagnons de route, comme on n’en est pas connu, il faut éviter toute conversation et réduire le dialogue autant que possible si on tentait de l’engager. Il ne faut point oublier, en effet, d’une part, que les apparences peuvent être trompeuses, et, d’une autre, qu’une certaine dose d’empressement peut être mal interprétée.3
(Since you’re not acquainted with your fellow passengers and they are not acquainted with you, you must avoid all conversation and limit interaction as much as possible, if you must have it at all. You must not forget that, on the one hand, appearances may be deceiving, and, on the other, a certain eagerness on your part may be misinterpreted.)
Perhaps even more importantly than the specifics of her advice, the article is based on Raymond’s personal experience, thus indicating that taking public transport was an entirely proper and common thing to do for a woman of good moral standing. If this paragon of bourgeois propriety and feminine virtue could ride an omnibus alone, then any respectable woman could too, without risking her reputation.
And yet Aunt Cœur’s reaction of shock and disbelief is emblematic of how the omnibus was viewed in the nineteenth-century French cultural imagination: as a place associated with improper female conduct and with different forms of sexual transgression. Many cultural documents present this vehicle as a space of dubious repute, where respectable girls like Claudine could become ‘contaminated’ by the inappropriate behaviour of other, less virtuous women passengers, or, worse, be taken for a woman of loose morals. In fact, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, despite the fact that many women of different classes used public transport on a daily basis – whether to go to work, shopping or visiting – we find a well-established gendered mythology of the omnibus as a ‘vehicle of vice’, one that linked it with sexually transgressive female behaviour, moral decay and loss of respectability.
To be sure, the omnibus was hardly the only vehicle associated with illicit female sexuality in nineteenth-century culture, as readers of Madame Bovary can attest. In Flaubert’s 1857 novel, Emma Bovary consummates her adulterous affair with Léon inside a fiacre. In this famous scene, the description of the frenetic peregrinations of the fiacre through the streets of Rouen metaphorically conveys the lovemaking taking place inside the vehicle. When Emma hesitates for a moment before getting into the fiacre, Léon’s justification is that ‘ça se fait à Paris’4 (it’s done in Paris), meaning that this behaviour was taken as a norm in the capital.5 In this scene, Flaubert draws on a well-established literary and visual topos dating back to the 1830s and 1840s that links the fiacre to adultery: this vehicle provided convenient anonymity and privacy for adulterous trysts.6
Of course, no work of literature or visual culture claimed that the omnibus was a site of actual sexual encounters. And yet various forms of improper behaviour on the part of women were a leitmotif in omnibus literature and visual representations by men. One early example is an 1829 lithograph depicting the interior of an omnibus with a number of passengers packed in close together (Plate 6). The central figures are a well-appointed young woman and her unattractive, boorish-looking petit-bourgeois husband, with their little boy leaning on both his parents’ knees, linking them visually. To the left of the young woman, an elegant gentleman, whose top hat and fashionable attire indicate that he belongs to a higher social class, surreptitiously holds her hand. The gentleman’s other hand is holding up two fingers, as if to indicate that he is paying for two seats, presumably his own and the woman’s. At the same time, this gesture was a universal symbol for ‘cocu’ (cuckold), here clearly referring to the husband, who appears to be oblivious to his wife’s dalliance. The caption cautions, ‘Maris honnêtes garde à vous!’7 (‘Honest husbands, beware!’). This image is representative of how the liminal space of the omnibus interior – both public and private, anonymous and intimate – was perceived and imagined in the nineteenth century. In their insistent depiction of diverse iterations of sexualised femininity, from wet nurse to prostitute, both well-known and popular texts and images reveal the complexity of cultural attitudes toward women’s power of locomotion, an ambivalence about the blurring of boundaries between private and public realms, and anxieties about women taking over public space.
The omnibus was not the only urban space that was imbued with gendered moral meaning in the nineteenth-century cultural imagination: boulevards, restaurants, theatres and, beginning in the 1850s, department stores and parks were also evaluated in relation to women’s respectability. What was unique about the omnibus was that, regardless of their sex or class, passengers were gathered together in a kind of enforced proximity. Although the conveyance was by definition public, it was also cramped and intimate, evocative of a private, domestic space. As most visual representations show, passengers were seated close to one another, their bodies often touching, and they had to literally face each other for the duration of the ride. Moreover, the ephemeral, transient nature of omnibus encounters was imagined as conducive to fleeting sexual pursuits. It is thus not surprising that the vehicle was construed at once as a space of moral dangers for respectable women and as a site of erotic opportunities for men. The narrow interior encapsulated particularly well tensions and ambiguities surrounding the presence of women in public space. Priscilla Ferguson’s notion of a ‘moral geography’ that connects urban mobility and transgression, a term she introduces to analyse Zola’s La Curée, helps us understand how omnibus literature addressed women’s participation in modern urban life.8 In the context of this literature, ‘moral geography’ describes how cultural production of the time conceived of the omnibus as a space of female sexual transgression, even if women’s presence on public transport was endorsed in practice.
Scholarly debates about the place of women in public spaces in the nineteenth century inform my discussion of the omnibus and gender. Cultural critics and sociologists of the city such as Walter Benjamin, Georg Simmel and Marshall Berman presented the story of modernity as that of the public space from which middle-class women were excluded. Confined to the domestic sphere, women did not participate in spaces of modernity that were public and belonged to men. Feminist scholars writing in the 1980s (in particular, sociologist of visual culture Janet Wolff and art historian Griselda Pollock) challenged this narrative by pointing out the failures of this literature to account for women’s experiences of modernity. Pollock argued for the inclusion of domestic, private spaces as a valid experience of the modern.9 But it is only in the past two decades that scholars across disciplines in the humanities, including literary scholars Sharon Marcus and Catherine Nesci, art historians Marni Kessler, Lynda Nead and contributors to the volume The Invisible Flâneuse?, among others, have considerably nuanced this approach, questioning the hegemony of the public–private dichotomy and the ideology of separate spheres.10 These scholars have convincingly shown that, although women were unquestionably excluded from many aspects of political and cultural life, the story of female presence in the city and the ways it was imagined by writers and artists is much more complex than proponents of the separate-spheres paradigm had initially proposed. While these debates have largely been settled, they provide an important context for my discussion here, as I draw on recent rethinking of what it meant to be a woman in a nineteenth-century metropolis.11 Stories and images involving Parisian omnibuses contribute to a better understanding of how the culture of this period grappled with gendered perception of public urban space.
In examining textual and visual representations of the omnibus alongside contemporary historical and journalistic accounts, we find ample evidence that working-class and middle-class women constituted a large proportion of actual omnibus passengers throughout the nineteenth century. Women took advantage of the possibilities for urban mobility and participation in public life offered by public transport, and I venture to assert that the majority of them were neither prostitutes, nor adulteresses, nor women otherwise transgressing sexual or social norms. Yet there emerges a mythology that consistently pairs women omnibus passengers with different types of sexual misbehaviour. Because the omnibus allowed for unprecedented proximity and mixing, it offered male writers and artists a convenient framework to treat salacious topics and to work out their fantasies about women in the public space. Even if in reality it was not improper for respectable women to take the omnibus, it was often imagined as such in omnibus literature. In other words, representational practices departed from actual everyday practices.12
This mythology linking the omnibus and sexual promiscuity informs two well-known late-nineteenth-century works: Zola’s novel La Curée (1872) and Maupassant’s short story ‘Le père’ (1883), which deploy the omnibus as a metaphor for female sexual transgression and moral failure. These two texts draw on patterns of representation that were well established by the second half of the nineteenth century. The next part of this chapter turns to the excavation of this gendered mythology through an analysis of popular literature and images that symbolically united public transport and transgressive female sexuality.
‘Vehicle of vice’ in Zola and Maupassant
In Zola’s urban novel La Curée and in Maupassant’s ‘Le père’, the omnibus makes a brief but crucial appearance as what may be called a ‘vehicle of vice’: it is closely associated with sexually transgressive female behaviour. An ambivalent setting, where boundaries between private and public are troubled, the omnibus engenders sexual disorder on a micro level and ultimately threatens established social structures. Central to La Curée and ‘Le père’ are ways in which social and moral meanings are mapped on to the physical and spatial organisation of the newly reconstructed Paris. These meanings are constructed through a series of oppositions of different urban spaces: the omnibus and a restaurant’s private room in La Curée, the omnibus and the park in ‘Le père’. In these two texts, the omnibus emerges as a sexually charged space through which anxiety about social disorder is articulated.
La Curée is a spatial novel. It tells the story of the early years of Haussmann’s radical remaking of Paris and paints a portrait of the profoundly corrupt and degenerate society that is forged in the process. La Curée is organised around a number of emblematic urban spaces that generate the novel’s meaning. The story moves seamlessly from Aristide Saccard’s extravagant mansion, the brand-new ornate façade of which conceals the ephemeral nature of the protagonist’s paper fortune, to the sombre Hotel Béraud (his wife Renée’s parental home), which embodies traditional bourgeois values and morality, and from the salons and ballrooms of the novel’s courtesans to the city’s recently created public spaces, such as boulevards, cafés, restaurants and parks. Famous sequences of carriage-traffic jams in the Bois de Boulogne provide the novel’s bookends. In Zola’s Paris, space is never neutral.13 Although Zola meticulously reproduces the topographical reality of the recently Haussmannised Paris, famously compiling a detailed dossier on every aspect of the city that makes its way into his novel, what emerges most powerfully is not merely a recognisable realist setting but a system of moral geography, essential to the novel’s overall social critique of the corrupt and degenerate Second Empire. As we shall see, the omnibus occupies a key place in this moral geography.
A central scene in La Curée depicts Renée and her stepson Maxime consummating their adulterous and quasi-incestuous love affair, an affair that, in Zola’s novelistic universe, encapsulates the moral failures of the Second Empire. The scene literally takes place in the cabinet particulier14 (private room) of the fashionable Café Riche but is metaphorically dominated by the omnibus. While the omnibus is only marginally present in this scene (none of the action takes place in the vehicle), it is invested with enormous symbolic value, emblematic of the sexual and moral corruption that the novel portrays. In La Curée, the cabinet particulier and the omnibus are foils for one another: they highlight the association of these spaces with illicit sexuality in the city’s moral economy.
When Renée accepts Maxime’s invitation to dine at a restaurant (after an incognito appearance at a courtesan’s ball), what attracts her is precisely the risqué nature of such a venue for a proper high-society lady – she takes pleasure in her stepson’s idea ‘de lui faire goûter au fruit défendu’15 (letting her taste forbidden fruit). What she does not yet realise is that she herself is the fruit to be consumed. Indeed, the heroine, suffering from intense boredom in her comfortable bourgeois world, delights in finding herself in a vaguely disreputable place: ‘elle jouissaient profondément de ce mobilier équivoque, qu’elle sentait autour d’elle… de ce divan qui la choquait par sa largeur’16 (she derived profound enjoyment from the suggestive furniture around her… from the divan, whose width shocked her). The setting includes a dusty mirror, in which Renée imagines courtesans adjusting their false chignons, and aphrodisiac oysters, which she consumes for dinner. Illicit sexuality is thus coded in the space itself, because the cabinet particulier, in the sociolect of the nineteenth century, signified sexual transgression.17
The extensive description of the view from the window, focalised through Renée’s perspective, builds up anticipation of the erotic dénouement. Renée’s eyes follow customers drinking in cafés, couples strolling along the boulevard, prostitutes seeking clients. From her vantage point, high above the crowd and (ostensibly) sheltered inside a luxury restaurant, hers is a master gaze, safely separated from the boulevard below, teeming with various forms of vice. Yet the boulevard, with its vague connotation of both literal and figurative filth, ends up bursting into the cabinet particulier, effectively removing both spatial and moral boundaries between private and public, proper and perverse. The vehicle of this invasion is none other than the omnibus:
De cinq à cinq minutes, l’omnibus des Batignolles passait, avec ses lanternes rouges et sa caisse jaune, tournant le coin de la rue Le Péletier, ébranlant la maison de son fracas; et elle voyait les hommes de l’impériale, des visages fatigués qui se levaient et les regardaient, elle et Maxime, du regard curieux des affamés mettant l’œil à une serrure.
(Every five minutes, the Batignolles omnibus passed by, with its red lamps and yellow sides, turning the corner of rue Le Péletier, shaking the building as it went, and she saw the men on the upper deck look up at them with their tired faces, with the expectant look of famished people peering through a keyhole.)18
The omnibus assaults the senses of those inside the restaurant with its jarring colours – the ominous red of the lantern, the yellow of the cash register – and clamour (‘fracas’) that produces violent shaking. What is more, this passage performs a clear reversal with regard to the idea of spectacle: while throughout the scene Renée was observing the spectacle of urban life on the boulevard, now it is Renée and Maxime who become the spectacle for the riders of the impériale.
In his perceptive reading, Christopher Prendergast interprets this passage in terms of class tensions. For him, the term ‘affamés’ is taken as the literal hunger of the have-nots who peek through the window of a luxury restaurant.19 Their curiosity about the abundance from which they are permanently excluded is insatiable. But the term ‘affamés’ can also be read as sexual hunger. The men riding on the impériale look into the cabinet particulier as if through the keyhole of a bedroom (or a brothel), amplifying the sexual charge of the scene. The male passengers are cast as voyeurs who exercise a kind of power over the young woman objectified by their sullying invasive stares. The illusion of mastery over the boulevard upon which she was looking vanishes when the two lovers become objects of the men’s covetous gaze. Just as the boundaries between inside and outside, spectacle and spectator collapse, so does the difference between a proper lady and a prostitute.
If the lustful passengers on the impériale peeping into the room prefigure the scene of the sexual act, then it comes as no surprise that the encounter itself takes place under the literal and figurative omnibus shadow. As Renée and Maxime make love on the sofa prominently occupying the cabinet, a passing omnibus with its deafening roar seems once again to invade the room: ‘Dans le grand silence du cabinet, où le gaz semblait flamber plus haut, elle sentit le sol trembler et entendit le fracas de l’omnibus des Batignolles qui devait tourner le coin du boulevard. Et tout fut dit.’ (In the profound silence of the room, where the gas seems to flare up higher, she felt the ground tremble and heard the clatter of the Batignolles omnibus turning the corner of the boulevard. The talking was over.)20 While the transgressive sexual act itself is described elliptically (‘tout fut dit’), it is represented symbolically through the omnibus: the clatter (‘fracas’) and the throbbing (‘trembler’) of the ground describe what is happening between the two characters.21 What Zola achieves here is a recasting of the orderly spaces of the recently Haussmannised Paris into spaces of moral disorder, so that his novel creates an alternative Parisian topography in the service of his critique of the Second Empire’s degenerate society.22 In redrawing the map of Paris, he relies on cultural associations between the omnibus and transgressive female sexuality (here in the form of adultery and incest) that had been established in the French cultural imagination almost from the moment the omnibus was launched.
Similarly to Zola, Maupassant draws on the link between the omnibus and sexual transgression in ‘Le père’, but here the vehicle is associated with a woman’s loss of innocence and respectability. The story tells a tale of a love affair between an office clerk, François Tessier, and a shop girl, Louise, who meet on an omnibus. Learning of his mistress’s pregnancy a few months into the affair, Tessier abandons her. Ten years later he encounters her by chance in the Parc Monceau. Upon seeing his son for the first time, he is consumed by paternal love and belated regrets.
The story takes us through a series of spaces that organise the plot. Each space acquires its symbolic significance through its juxtaposition with the others. The story begins inside an omnibus, where the couple meets, then briefly moves to the countryside where their affair is consummated. The second part of the story takes us first to the respectable bourgeois space of the Parc Monceau and finally to the ‘salon bourgeois’ in the apartment Louise now shares with her husband, ‘un honnête homme de mœurs graves’ (a respectable man with serious manners).
In this story, the omnibus functions as an erotically charged space that engenders the (illicit) relationship between the two protagonists. Tessier’s feelings for the young woman arise from the daily repetition of the omnibus commute: ‘Chaque matin il voyageait jusqu’au centre de Paris, en face d’une jeune fille dont il devient amoureux’23 (Every morning he travelled to the centre of Paris sitting face-to-face with a young girl with whom he fell in love). The attraction between the two characters emerges in the enclosed and intimate space of an omnibus, dominated by anonymity and chance. This attraction is fostered by the vehicle’s seating arrangement of two rows facing one another: ‘Il la regardait obstinément, malgré lui. Gênée par cette contemplation, elle rougit. Il s’en aperçut et voulut détourner les yeux; mais il les ramenait à tout moment sur elle, quoiqu’il s’efforçât de les fixer ailleurs.’24 (He was looking at her obstinately, despite himself. Unsettled by his stares, she blushed. He noticed and wanted to look away. But he kept casting his eyes upon her, even though he was trying to fix them elsewhere.) It is as if the set-up of the omnibus interior compels the two solitary characters to engage in this chance intimacy, bringing them together almost despite themselves. Here we see the complex dynamic of the omnibus setting, blurring the boundaries between public and private, as the two characters develop a private rapport in the middle of this public space. But their intimacy is paradoxically accompanied by anonymity: the two characters, in fact, do not know each other’s names. And since this third-person narrative is focalised through Tessier’s eyes, we as readers only know the young woman as ‘elle’. Only when Tessier and the young woman travel to the countryside together, does he finally ask her: ‘Comment vous appelez-vous?’25 (What is your name?)
The text draws our attention to the short duration of the omnibus trip and the fleeting and ephemeral nature of the daily encounters: ‘Une sorte d’intimité rapide s’établit entre eux, une intimité d’une demi-heure par jour’26 (A kind of quick intimacy was established between them, an intimacy of half an hour a day). This ‘intimité rapide’ both befits and replicates the anonymity and speed of the modern city. Unlike the light-hearted songs depicting love encounters on the omnibus that I discuss in Chapter 2, Maupassant’s story draws our attention to the alienating and dehumanising aspect of public transport, which serves here as a mise en abyme for urban alienation and anomie. Although it is a different modern vehicle – a train – that later takes Louise to the countryside – the actual site where she loses her virginity – it is the omnibus that symbolically represents her passage from innocence to ‘faute’ (fault), for it is there that the erotic attraction takes hold. The transience of their daily omnibus meetings foreshadows the ephemeral nature of the relationship itself. For Tessier, the half-hour on the omnibus becomes the highlight of his monotonous existence: ‘Et c’était là, certes, la plus charmante demi-heure de sa vie à lui’27 (It was the most charming half an hour of his life). Perhaps, however, the charm of the encounter is precisely its brevity: three months into the affair, ‘il commençait à se lasser d’elle’ (he was beginning to tire of her). Having learned of Louise’s pregnancy, ‘il n’eut plus qu’une idée en tête: rompre à tout prix’28 (he only had one thought in mind: to break up at all costs). He soon abandons her by moving to a new apartment, thus avoiding the daily omnibus commute that brought them together in the first place.
The space of the initial illicit attraction that eventually leads to a breakdown of social order – the birth of an illegitimate child – is contrasted with another highly symbolic space that dominates the second part of the story: the orderly space of the Parc Monceau. Parallel to the beginning of the story, the park is the site of a second chance encounter between Tessier and Louise, who is now accompanied by their child. The park, however, could not be more different from the omnibus.29 Essential to Napoleon III’s conception of the new city, parks were intended as spaces of regulated leisure and bourgeois sociability, a staging ground for a public display of family life and proper bourgeois femininity.30 A space of propriety, Parc Monceau imposed, in the words of art historian Greg Thomas, ‘visual and social order to the city and its classes’ and provided the bourgeoisie with a prescribed way to spend their leisure time.31 Its well laid out paths and lawns embodied bourgeois respectability and dominant moral values.32 It is in this context that Tessier and Louise meet again. Louise’s demeanour, that of the proper married bourgeois lady she has now become, contrasts sharply with how she is described at the beginning of the story. When we first see her, she runs after the omnibus ‘d’un petit air pressé’33 (with a hurried little look) and is out of breath when she finally gets on board. Now, in the park, everything about her – her clothes, her way of walking – reinforces the image of respectability: ‘Elle avait un air sérieux de dame, une toilette simple, une allure assurée et digne’34 (She had a serious look of a lady, a simple dress, a confident and dignified way of walking). If, like the omnibus, the park is a space where chance encounters are possible, it is, by contrast, one where such a meeting is avoidable. This time, Louise flees at the sight of her former lover: as a bastion of bourgeois respectability, Parc Monceau imposes certain modes of behaviour and does not condone inappropriate contact. The park both reflects the moral values it professes to represent and enforces them upon visitors to its well-organised space. Louise has travelled a long way from the erotic titillations of the dangerously intimate public space of the omnibus. The juxtaposition with the park underscores the association of the omnibus with illicit sexuality: in Maupassant’s text, the omnibus embodies sexual and social disorder engendered by the modern metropolis.
As the two works by Zola and Maupassant show, by the late nineteenth century the omnibus was coded as a vehicle of sexual transgression and was associated with illicit female sexuality. While these two writers may not have been familiar with the particular popular texts and images teeming with wet nurses baring their breasts or prostitutes soliciting clients that I analyse in the pages that follow, in sketching the gendered moral geography that structures their work, they implicitly drew on cultural associations between the omnibus and the commerce of sex.
Buses, breasts and babies
On the surface, the figure of the wet nurse that appears in several works of omnibus literature seems to be used mostly for comic effect: she is the source of slapstick humour.35 But I would argue that this figure expresses a fascination with female sexuality and anxiety about its overt manifestation in public space, and provides fodder for male writers and artists to depict topics that were otherwise off limits.36 Sequences involving the wet nurse unfold in a surprisingly similar way in different texts; typically, she is the source of chaos that ensues aboard the vehicle. For instance, in ‘Un voyage en omnibus’ Ernest Fouinet describes ‘une grosse et grasse nourrice’ (a fat and corpulent wet nurse) frenetically chasing after an omnibus while holding an infant. The redundancy of ‘grosse et grasse’ brings into relief the emphasis on the body as well as the disruptive effect this character’s presence has on other passengers.37 When the wet nurse finally climbs on board, she is a dishevelled mess: ‘Essoufflée, pantelante, pourpre, elle allait tomber avec son enfant quand on l’aperçut: elle monta colère et hors d’haleine, et son enfant bondissait au flux et reflux de son large sein palpitant qu’il cherchait, en vagissant, à saisir de ses petites mains potelées.’38 (Out of breath, panting, all red, she was about to collapse with her baby when she was noticed; she got on board, furious and out of breath, and her bawling baby bounced up and down trying to grasp her large breast with his little pudgy hands.) This vividly depicted scene is meant to make the reader laugh, yet it is also troubling, for the wet nurse here is both abject and disorderly, occupying too much space, disrupting the peace.
We encounter an even more troubling wet nurse figure in Gourdon’s Physiologie de l’omnibus:
Une nourrice, grosse et gaillarde provinciale, étale à tous les yeux sa gorge brune et fortement accusée; mais le marmot ne tette pas: sans cesse en émoi par le cahotement de la voiture, sa tête ne peut s’attacher au sein. La nourrice fouette le marmot qui crie, le petit monsieur se plaint au conducteur qui ne l’écoute pas et compte son argent.39
(A fat and saucy wet nurse from the provinces spreads her dark-coloured and well-rounded bosom for everyone to see; but the little brat does not nurse: his head constantly bopping up and down from the vehicle’s movement, he fails to latch on. The wet nurse spanks the brat who howls; the little monsieur complains to the conductor who doesn’t listen and counts money instead.)
Here again we see both class and gender at play. As a ‘provinciale’, the wet nurse is coded as lacking in knowledge of proper conduct in the city. Described as ‘saucy’, she seems more interested in displaying her large bosom for the viewing pleasure of her fellow passengers than in taking care of her charge. Like her counterpart in Fouinet’s text, this wet nurse is depicted as a grotesque caricature, an object of the narrator’s contempt. Through an exaggerated display of her body she causes chaos and confusion. Curiously, in both Gourdon and Fouinet’s texts, the wet nurse also fails at her main job – nursing the baby – because the omnibus is depicted as an inappropriate place for this activity. The two texts ostensibly present this as a practical problem of movement and locomotion, rather than one of respectability. Yet we can’t help but wonder: does the implicit condemnation of the wet nurse in these texts also reveal a deeper fascination with – and anxiety about – the female body on display in public?
We find many of the same themes and imagery elaborated upon in more detail in a late-nineteenth-century short story by Emile Dartès, ‘Madeleine-Bastille’ (1894). A bourgeois mother, a baby, and a wet nurse board a Parisian omnibus, and their interactions provide the primary source of narrative interest. The two women present a study in contrasts. The mother, in her forties, is bony, dried-up and unattractive-looking (‘maigre, jaune, longue comme un jour sans pain’40 (thin, yellow, long like a day without bread)). She is doubly de-feminised: first, as a bad mother who does not nurse her child and, second, as sexually unappealing. The voluptuous wet nurse, Françoise, is her exact opposite: ‘une superbe nounou rouge, joufflue, satisfaite, portant sur ses bras un énorme nourrisson qui se débat comme un cabri et crie comme un poulet qu’on écorche’41 (a superb wet nurse, chubby and content, carrying in her arms an enormous baby who kicks like a mountain goat and shrieks like a chicken that’s being skinned). Here we find the by that time familiar descriptive vocabulary (‘joufflue’, ‘rouge’), and her generic name appears to suggest that she can be any woman.
When the baby begins to cry, the mother loudly orders Françoise to give him the breast in the middle of the moving vehicle: ‘Celle-ci, d’un mouvement brusque, fait sauter les boutons de son corsage et met à nu un magnifique sein, blanc comme la neige, et gonflé de lait. De sa main droite elle en empoigne le bout épais et l’enfonce dans la bouche du môme qui s’arrête enfin de brailler pour boire gloutonnement.’42 (With a quick movement, she unbuttons her blouse and exposes a magnificent breast, white as snow and engorged with milk. With her right hand, she grabs her thick nipple and shoves it into the mouth of the baby, who finally stops screaming and begins to nurse greedily.) Although there were no laws prohibiting breastfeeding in public, the scene clearly depicts it as improper. But what is striking about this passage and several following ones is that it lavishly dwells on the wet nurse’s exposed white breasts, at once eroticising her and portraying her as grotesque.
The impropriety of the scene is highlighted through a humorous displacement: while Françoise nurses the baby, her mistress sternly admonishes her for violating rules of proper behaviour on public transport. But what the mother criticises is not breastfeeding in public or exposing her breasts; rather, it is the fact that the wet nurse engages in conversation with other riders, a violation of the code of proper conduct on public transport. In particular, the mother is upset that Françoise converses with a middle-aged man, who introduces himself as a mayor of a village and is described as ‘un paillard’ (a bawdy chap). The text emphasises the erotic effect that the wet nurse’s exposed bosom produces on male passengers. For example, ‘les seins rebondis de la nourrice émoustillaient fortement’43 (the round breasts of the wet nurse greatly aroused) the provincial ‘paillard’. Similarly, an old man nodding off in the corner ‘se ragaillardissait un peu. Ses petits yeux s’éclairaient et reprenaient l’imperceptible lueur de vivacité à la vue de l’imposant néné que la nourrice étalait avec une innocente franchise devant tout le monde’44 (perked up. His small eyes lit up and became alert at the sight of the imposing boob that the wet nurse was spreading in front of everyone with a frank innocence). The scene descends into further chaos as the baby begins to scream and kick the wet nurse, who is then unable to button her dress, leaving her bosom exposed to her fellow passengers’ gaze: ‘Elle ne peut même reboutonner son corsage qui, largement ouvert, laisse voir sa luxuriante poitrine si attirante pour l’œil chargé de convoitise de ce gros rougeaud de M. le maire.’45 (She can’t even button her blouse, which, mostly open, exposes her luxurious breast, so attractive to the desiring eye of the red-faced Monsieur the mayor.) This sequence appears not only to describe the desire that Françoise’s bosom elicits in her fellow male passengers but to stimulate a similar desire in the reader. The episode is accompanied by two illustrations that visually reiterate and reinforce the text’s obsession with the wet nurse’s bare breast. The first image zooms in on Françoise nursing a large, overdressed child (Figure 4.1). Her breast is disproportionally enormous and oddly shaped, its stark whiteness contrasting with her dark clothing. This exaggerated breast dominates the image just as it dominates the narrative. The wet nurse’s face is turned away from the child, as if to emphasise her indifference toward her charge.
In the second illustration, we see the wet nurse from a slightly different angle, her breast still exposed, as she now engages in conversation with the lustful provincial mayor (Figure 4.2). This second image does not add anything new to the portrait of Françoise. Rather, its inclusion seems to be due to an obsessive desire to re-present (to present again) the wet nurse’s breast, sexualised through the desirous eyes of the male passenger (the ‘paillard’) and those of the viewer outside the image.
While it is easy to presume that the writers I examine here milk the figure of the wet nurse solely for its obvious comic effect, I would argue that these representations reflect an anxiety about female sexuality that is particularly acute in the public space of the omnibus. Lisa Algazi Marcus reminds us that in the nineteenth century, breastfeeding was closely associated with sexual pleasure that took place outside of male control, and that, for many authors, especially toward the end of the century, ‘the representation of the act of breast-feeding [was] both revolting and alluring’.46 This dynamic is evident in the three texts I have examined: the wet nurse is depicted as incongruous, repulsive, grotesquely excessive and inappropriate. Yet at the same time, all three texts seem to take particular pleasure in painting the portrait of the wet nurse. Beyond being a vehicle of satire, this figure embodies male anxieties about women’s bodies taking over public space.
Although not a wet nurse, a figure closely allied with her is ‘la femme qui accouche’ (the woman who gives birth), which appears in the 1854 Paris-en-omnibus by Delord, Frémy and Texier. As I discussed in Chapter 1, this book’s many chapters vary greatly in both genre and register. This particular chapter was clearly written in a satirical mode. Claiming that ‘la femme qui accouche’ is a common type, one that readers must have encountered themselves, the passage presents the following male fantasy of childbirth aboard public transport:
Ne vous est-il jamais arrivé, en allant en omnibus de la rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette à l’Odéon, d’entendre tout à coup un Ah! Mon Dieu! retentir à l’un des coins du véhicule? Ce cri vient d’être poussé par une femme; on arrête, on s’empresse autour d’elle, on regarde à ses pieds, on y trouve, devinez quoi? Un enfant, un superbe enfant, gros, gras, dodu, le plus né viable de tous les enfants.
La femme qui accouche en omnibus est un type, vous la reconnaîtriez entre mille, rien qu’à sa physionomie. Elle a quelque chose de tranquille, de paisible, de calme, d’heureux, qui fait dire: cette femme est capable d’accoucher partout, même en omnibus. … La femme qui accouche en omnibus appartient à toutes les classes de la société; il y en a des riches, il y en a des pauvres, il y en a du peuple et de l’aristocratie, du commerce et de la finance. Il n’y a que les femmes du notariat qui n’accouchent jamais en omnibus. La mère et l’enfant se portent toujours bien après un accouchement en omnibus. Quand une femme accouche en omnibus elle peut revenir facilement chez elle en fiacre.47
(Hasn’t it happened to you that while riding the omnibus from Notre-Dame-de Lorette to Odéon, you heard a sudden Ah! My God! emanating from the corner? These screams come from a woman. The vehicle stops, everyone rushes over to her; then, guess what they see at her feet? A baby, a superb, round, fat baby, the sturdiest of all babies ever born. The woman who gives birth on the omnibus is a type; you will recognise her among all others, just by looking at her face. There is something calm, peaceful, content about her that prompts you to say: this woman is able to give birth anywhere, even on the omnibus. The woman giving birth on the omnibus belongs to all classes of society. She can be rich or poor, she can be working-class or an aristocrat, she could be from the world of commerce or that of finance. Only the wives of notaries do not ever give birth aboard an omnibus. Mother and child do very well after childbirth on an omnibus. When a woman gives birth on an omnibus, she can easily return home in a hackney cab.)
On the face of it, this passage seems to be pure satire, as evidenced by the sheer absurdity of its assertions (the baby is born in a matter of minutes, the mother utters nothing more than ‘Ah! Mon Dieu!’ while in labour, both mother and child are always in perfect health and omnibus childbirth happens to women of all classes), yet there is something quite troubling in this passage. This outlandish tale may be a way to broach a topic that is usually off limits, a way to peek into – or imagine – a female space from which men are normally excluded. Although the passage humorously claims that women giving birth on the omnibus can hail from all social classes, it doesn’t fail to mention that this line originates at the rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, a neighbourhood associated with prostitution, thus suggesting a link between public women and public transport. And, indeed, women engaged in sexual commerce abound in cultural representations of the omnibus.
Public transport for a public woman
One of the first texts about the omnibus, the satirical Les omnibus. Premier voyage de Cadet la Blague de la place de la Madeleine à la Bastille et retour (1828) opens with a poem that explicitly articulates male fantasies about female passengers that characterise nineteenth-century omnibus literature. Addressed to male readers seeking sexual adventures – the ‘vous’ of the poem – this text places the erotic potential of this mode of transport front and centre:
Vous qui courez après les aventures,
Ne regardez point ceci comm’ des rébus;
Pour en trouver prenez donc ces voitures,
Que dans Paris on nomm’ des Omnibus.
(Those of you who seek adventure,
It’s not so hard
To find one, just take one of those carriages
That in Paris are called Omnibus.)
In the second stanza, the poem offers a panorama of female types aboard omnibus:
On y rencontre des fill’, des femm,’ des veuves
De ces maris qu’ leur épous’ rim’en us,
Et des beautés qui veul’ passer pour neuves,
Quoique’elles soient au nomb’ des Omnibus
(There you meet ladies, young and old,
Whose husbands bear the name of cuckold,
And beauties who want to pass for fresh ones
Although they are among the Omnibus).
By playfully linking ‘omnibus’ with ‘us’ (meaning ‘cocus’: cuckold), the poem implies that female passengers (whether girls, wives or widows) who take the omnibus are a priori morally compromised and prone to sexual promiscuity, adultery and prostitution. In the last two lines, the poem makes an explicit connection between the vehicle and prostitution, playing on the meaning of the word ‘omnibus’ to suggest that female passengers were women destined ‘for all’.48
Having established an equivalence between the vehicle and the prostitute, the third stanza tells us that this public transport provides prostitutes (‘un essaim de Vénus’) with an ideal place to solicit clients when their business among pedestrians on the boulevards is lacking. The poet overhears the women wishing that they could ‘try their luck’ on the omnibus:
Sur le boulevard quand le chaland leur manque,
Vous entendez un essaim de Vénus,
Dir’ si j’savais gagner un billet de banque,
J’irais tenter fortun’ dans l’s Omnibus
(When clients are hard to find on the boulevard
You will hear the swarm of Venuses
Say if I knew how to earn a buck,
I’d try my luck on the Omnibus).
This early text establishes themes of female impropriety in general, but also introduces the fiction of the omnibus as a place for prostitutes to seek out clients. As we shall see, this fiction permeates popular culture, as numerous other documents imagine the omnibus as a playing field for women of loose morals. As with ‘la femme qui accouche’, rather than being a reliable reflection of actual everyday practices, these documents offer a window into male fantasies according to which the omnibus was a place of dubious female behaviour. There are no records indicating that in reality Parisian prostitutes used the omnibus to solicit clients, just as it would be impossible to ascertain whether adulterous trysts ever occurred because men and women found themselves in close proximity to one another. But in mapping out their ‘moral geographies’, nineteenth-century male authors and visual artists coded this vehicle as a site where women are likely to engage in sexually transgressive behaviour.49
Let us consider an anonymous print from an 1859 satirical series, Paris Grotesque, which depicts a character named Madame Crinoliska aboard a crowded omnibus. (Figure 4.3). Madame Crinoliska invades the space of the omnibus, overwhelming her fellow passengers with the lacy layers of her large, luxurious skirt.50 Her entire outfit – a tiered skirt, a bonnet with a wide-flowing ribbon and enormous bow, a fur-trimmed shawl nonchalantly draped over her shoulders, as well as scandalously visible legs and a crinoline cage – suggests ostentation, lack of propriety and conspicuous consumption. While Madame Crinoliska’s skirt consumes most of the space of the image, she herself is also an object to be consumed – by her fellow passengers, by the crinoline and, of course, by the viewer.51 On display for the benefit of other passengers, she is depicted literally making a spectacle of herself (‘faisant son entrée’) as if she were stepping on to a theatre stage. A woman literally identified with her skirt – and displaced by it – Madame Crinoliska embodies the excesses associated with women who wear crinolines.
According to Lynda Nead, images satirising the crinoline craze appeared as soon as the fashion itself, spanning media including photography, prints and illustrated books.52 From the beginning, attacks against the crinoline vogue took on distinctly gendered tones. Nead offers several reasons for this. First, crinolines were a health hazard: they frequently caught fire and killed their wearers, including Madame Crinoliska, who, in another image from the series, is consumed by the flames she sets off by igniting the hearts of her admirers.53 But the main reason for crinoline contempt was their girth. Women in crinolines simply took up too much space, in the opinion of many – and, as Nead explains, ‘men felt crowded out of social life’ and sometimes eclipsed altogether.54 As we see in this image, several respectable-looking male passengers, including a priest and three bourgeois men, are virtually engulfed by the voluminous ruffles of the skirt and pushed into the edges of the image. Crinolines and crinoline wearers represented excess, and their exaggerated physical presence flew in the face of rules of propriety and proper behaviour and threatened men through their sheer scale. According to Nead, ‘rather than being kept in their place, women, it seemed, were getting out of place in their crinolines’.55 The omnibus interior helped highlight this aspect of crinoline fashion.
Beyond anxiety about the scale of crinoline skirts and women exceeding the boundaries of their bodies in public spaces, what underlies this particular image is a concern that a woman of loose morals such as Madame Crinoliska was sharing a bench with respectable passengers. Since there were no legal restrictions on who was allowed on board, the omnibus presented a particular conundrum for the bourgeois moral order. How does one distinguish a loose woman from a respectable one at the time when their sartorial differences were increasingly blurred? Scholars such as Susan Hiner and Marni Kessler have convincingly demonstrated that with the advent of mass-produced clothing and accessories it was becoming difficult to differentiate between a respectable woman and a courtesan out in public.56 In Physiologie de l’omnibus, Edouard Gourdon bemoans the difficulty of establishing female passengers’ moral and social standing based on attire: ‘La robe de satin, le cachemire, et le chapeau de la femme comme il faut sortent souvent des magasins où la Lorette va s’approvisionner; l’une et l’autre ont souvent la même tailleuse et le même bijoutier’57 (The satin dress, the cashmere shawl, and the hat of a proper woman often come from the same shop where the Lorette does her shopping. The two often share a seamstress and a jeweller). As Hiner shows in her analysis of the role of fashion accessories in creating social distinction, the ambiguity of dress codes in determining a woman’s social class and respectability was seen as a threat to social hierarchies.58 In the case of Madame Crinoliska, it is not the crinoline itself that identifies her as a cocotte, since they were worn by respectable women as well. Nor was it the fact that she travelled unaccompanied. Rather, what marks Madame Crinoliska is the outrageous way she carries herself, scandalously displaying a good deal of her dainty legs and even a bit of the cage, flaunting her sartorial excesses and spreading her skirts everywhere, a visual metaphor for venal contagion.59
And this brings us back to Aunt Coeur and her indignation at Claudine’s omnibus adventure. Was Aunt Coeur’s main concern that her niece might find herself next to a prostitute and thus be exposed to her disorderly and contaminating presence? Or was it that Claudine could have been mistaken for a courtesan? It was believed that merely witnessing unbecoming conduct could lead an honest woman into the temptation of engaging in similar behaviour herself. As Hollis Clayson reminds us,
The honest woman must [therefore] never even see the prostitute. Prostitution had to be hidden from the dominated honest woman at any price, because… it carried a force harmful to the masculine order. The lapsing of the honest woman into the immoral woman – even if such yielding never penetrated her actions and remained merely a shift in consciousness – would erode the patriarchal system of domination.60
Certainly, there were other city spaces where a respectable woman could encounter a prostitute, especially as it became more acceptable for the former to circulate in cafés, parks, boulevards and department stores. But those encounters would be fleeting and thus of little consequence. The omnibus was different in that passengers could be exposed to a prolonged face-to-face contact with a prostitute. Respectable ladies risked moral contagion from sharing close quarters with a public woman.
The figure of a potential prostitute aboard the omnibus should be considered in the context of a widespread and thoroughly documented cultural obsession with prostitution that spans the nineteenth century.61 The 1830s, the early years of the omnibus service, coincided with a period during which prostitution grew exponentially in Paris. According to Jann Matlock, ‘Prostitution became a central issue – if not the central issue – by the early years of the July Monarchy.’62 The number of unregistered prostitutes grew from 9,000 in 1820 to 22,000 in 1831. It is not surprising that it was around the same time that the most comprehensive and defining work on regulating prostitution in nineteenth-century France was produced: Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet’s De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris (first published in 1836). The study, based on extensive research and statistical data, served as a justification for strict police practices regulating the sex trade and the prostitute’s body. Parent-Duchâtelet’s book, as well as other writings on prostitution, reflected bourgeois anxieties about both women’s sexuality and class. The increased number of prostitutes in 1830s Paris resulted from an influx of working-class, female job-seekers, who were often unable to find employment or were so underpaid that they could not make a living.63 Social fears about class and female sexuality in the urban context, articulated during the July Monarchy and continuing through the Second Empire and beyond, often focused on working-class women. But they had far-reaching implications for bourgeois women as well. As Rachel Fuchs and Victoria Thompson note, ‘To the middle classes, prostitutes symbolised working-class women’s rampant sexuality and all that was wrong with urban women’s work. Middle-class policy makers failed to acknowledge that women might engage in sex work as a temporary measure when there was no other work.’64 Works about prostitutes represented them as disruptive of the established social order and associated with working-class depravity, providing a rationale for why they should be regulated and why their presence in the public space had to be circumscribed. It is no wonder that against this backdrop, the omnibus, a space open to all without restrictions, was seen as a likely site for prostitutes to seek out clients or model sexually transgressive behaviour for proper women. As such, it provoked anxiety among bourgeois observers.
An 1865 lithograph (based on a painting by Morlon) illustrates an attempt to restrict omnibus entry to a woman of easy virtue. A woman in flashy dress seeks to board an omnibus on a rainy day (Figure 4.4). While there is clearly a practical explanation for why she is lifting her full skirts – to avoid getting them wet – her gesture, exposing most of her petticoat, goes beyond the imperative of bad weather. Like Madame Crinoliska, this woman also shows a quite a bit of her ankle. The caption, ‘Une poule mouillée’, literally ‘a wet hen’, plays on the colloquial definition of the word ‘poule’, meaning ‘slut’.65 Meanwhile, the uniform-clad conductor blocks her way, lifting his finger toward the sign that says complet (full). This gesture could simply mean that there are no more seats on the omnibus. Yet there is something stylised in the way he holds his hand, suggesting that perhaps this is also a gesture of moral opprobrium. I read the conductor’s pose as that of a gatekeeper, whose job is not just to collect the fare but also to keep women such as this one at bay, outside in the rain, blocking her way with his own uniformed body. His uniform confers a certain moral authority upon him. Meanwhile, the melon-hatted man inside appears either to sneer at the woman, delighting in her misfortune, or to flirt with her.
A different take on prostitutes on public transport is found in Paris-en-omnibus, a work that focuses not so much on morality as on commercial interests shared by omnibuses and prostitutes. This text stages the omnibus as an ideal place for men to find erotic adventures (the chapter is titled ‘Si on a de bonnes fortunes en omnibus’ (When one gets lucky on an omnibus)). Here we find a mise-en-scène involving a prostitute and a male passenger she works to seduce. The chapter is written in the second-person plural, thus implicating the presumptive male reader. The loose woman on the omnibus is described as a recognisable urban type (‘tout le monde l’a rencontrée’: everyone has met her), and her appearance and behaviour follow a seemingly predetermined script:
Elle est mise avec assez de coquetterie et d’élégance, et elle occupe ordinairement la place du coin, près de l’estrade du conducteur. Elle est âgée de 25 à 35 ans. Si elle n’est pas de la première jeunesse, elle a de beaux restes. Si votre toilette indique une certaine aisance, si vous avez l’air d’un homme poli et discret, ses yeux, si vous la regardez, ne fuiront pas les vôtres. Elle tient son voile baissé; mais il est assez transparent pour laisser voir le jeu de la physionomie.66
(She is dressed rather coquettishly and elegantly, and she usually sits in the corner, next to the conductor. She is between 25 and 35 years old. Although she is no spring chicken, she looks good for her age. If your clothes suggest solid financial footing, if you look like a man who is polite and discreet, she will not turn away when you look at her. Her veil is lowered, but it is sufficiently transparent to reveal her facial expression.)
This woman, who we will soon learn is a prostitute, is difficult to distinguish from a proper woman. She is well dressed, and, unlike Madame Crinoliska, is not ostentatious or inappropriate. In fact, she is a wearing a veil, ordinarily a sign of respectability and higher social class.67 Marni Kessler explains that although any woman could wear a veil, the manner in which it was worn was key in determining the woman’s class and respectability.68 Here, although the woman’s face is veiled, it is transparent enough to reveal her facial expression. The narrator suggests that by wearing a veil, the woman attempts to pass for respectable: ‘Elle se donne tantôt pour la femme d’un petit employé, tantôt pour une maîtresse de piano, le plus souvent pour une provinciale à Paris pour un grand procès’69 (She sometimes pretends to be the wife of a clerk, sometimes a piano teacher, most frequently a woman from the provinces who came to Paris for a big trial).
The rest of the story is written in the style of a user’s guide addressed to the male reader and adventure seeker, instructing him how to go about approaching the courtesan. The process of seduction in an omnibus setting appears to be codified into a set of well-rehearsed rules:
Après les premiers regards, poussez hardiment votre pied; il est probable que le sien répondra à l’appel. Ceci fait, attendez qu’elle dise au cocher d’arrêter, et qu’elle descende en ayant soin de laisser voir un bas bien tiré sur une jambe bien tournée. Descendez à votre tour et suivez-la. Si vous l’abordez, elle fera semblant de s’effaroucher tout d’abord. Insistez, elle vous répondra, et il y a cent à parier contre un qu’au bout de 5 minutes de conversation, elle vous accordera l’autorisation, ardemment sollicitée, de vous recevoir chez elle pour entendre une communication importante que vous avez à lui faire.70
(After the first glances are exchanged, daringly press your leg against hers; it is likely that she will respond favourably to the call. Once that’s done, wait for her to tell the driver to stop and for her to get off; as she does so, she makes sure to show her tight stockings and her well-rounded legs. Get off as well and follow her. If you approach her, she will at first pretend to be offended. Be persistent, and chances are that after a five-minute discussion she will grant you an eagerly solicited permission to visit her at her home in order to hear an important message you would like to deliver.)
After the rendezvous takes place and the lucky adventure seeker takes his leave of the woman, the narrator suggests that if he spends a few minutes lingering in the neighbourhood, he can watch her embark on her next omnibus escapade:
Placez-vous maintenant au coin de la rue; cinq minutes s’écouleront à peine, et vous verrez votre conquête s’arrêter sur le seuil de la maison et faire signe au premier omnibus qui passe. Elle recommencera ce petit commerce cinq ou six fois dans la journée, le plus souvent qu’elle pourra.71
(Now stand at the corner of the street. Barely five minutes later, you will see your conquest emerge from the entrance and flag the first omnibus that passes by. She will engage in this sort of commerce five or six times a day, as often as she can.)
The author thus creates a clear parallel between the ephemeral, fleeting experience of an omnibus ride and the equally short-lived nature of a sexual encounter with a prostitute. They are of a piece – part of the big metropolis emerging at the time, reflecting and complementing one another.
Moreover, the conductor does not seem to be concerned with morality but rather with the company’s commercial interests, to which the commerce of sex contributes: ‘Les conducteurs connaissent tous cette femme: “C’est une bonne pratique” disent-ils quelquefois en souriant. Je suis parfaitement de leur avis’72 (The conductors all know this woman. ‘It’s a good habit’ they say sometimes, smiling. I am entirely in agreement with them). In the emerging modern economy, prostitution and the omnibus business were mutually beneficial: both participated in systems of circulation – of vehicles, bodies and money – that were at the heart of urban modernity, and Paris-en-omnibus brings to the fore their shared economic dependence. But these systems also included writers of popular literature, such as the collective authors of Paris-en-omnibus: they capitalised on both the omnibus and the prostitute for their writerly business, appropriating these two phenomena of urban life as objects of literary production. Writers had much to gain from stories of prostitution aboard omnibuses: these stories were titillating and promised to sell well. The emerging modern commercial system of circulation of which prostitution and public transport were a part thus also included works of popular literature.73
Gendered ambivalence in Delondre’s En omnibus
The courtesan in Paris-en-omnibus could easily pass for a respectable woman because of her clothes and demeanour. As a result, she could elicit ambivalence, both anxiety-provoking and titillating, in nineteenth-century male observers. This ambivalence stands at the centre of the 1880 painting ‘En omnibus’ by Maurice Delondre (Plate 7). The painting depicts the interior of an omnibus occupied by six passengers, two men and four women. A seventh, faintly outlined figure of a woman flagging the omnibus with her umbrella outside on the boulevard is barely visible in the far background. Although the omnibus is not crowded, the low curved roof adorned with colourful advertisements and the angle from which we are viewing the scene create the impression of a constricted space.
As in many depictions of the omnibus interior, the scene appears intimate. In the foreground, a kitchen maid or a cook is clutching a basket bursting with brightly coloured vegetables or flowers. Seated beside her is an elegantly dressed young woman, and to the young woman’s left a gentleman holding a newspaper. Finally, in the background, a gaunt-looking working-class woman is hugging a small child, her head turned away from the viewer.
On the opposite side, there are two figures in profile: a bourgeois man in a top hat whose body is obscured by a young woman seated to his right. This young woman, modestly dressed, appears to be absorbed by something in her hands. She may perhaps be putting away her change. A hat box on the seat next to her suggests she may be coming home from shopping or that she may be a modiste (a hat maker) or a trottin (a shop girl) delivering a hat to a client. The kitchen maid, the modiste and the gaunt mother are depicted with attributes that allow us to infer their profession, social standing and the reason for their omnibus journey.
This painting captures the socio-economic diversity of the passengers, which, as we saw in the previous chapter, is a preoccupation of many urban observers. But it is the scene’s gendered dimension that interests me here. What especially draws attention is the tension between the gentleman in the top hat and the fashionably attired young woman seated side by side on the right side of the painting. While pretending to read his newspaper, the man surreptitiously stares at the woman; he seems, in fact, more interested in ‘reading’ his seatmate. How are we to interpret the man’s scrutinising gaze? Is she an object of erotic interest or of moralising curiosity? Could he be wondering if she is a woman of easy virtue disguised as a proper lady? Is his look one of misgiving and disapproval or desire?
But the young woman herself is the most enigmatic among the painting’s figures. In contrast with the other female passengers, it is difficult to surmise either her social status or the purpose of her unaccompanied outing on the omnibus. Her attire – the subtle flowers adorning her skirt, the ornate black hat, the pink bow at her neck that draws the eye, her stylish accessories, such as the black leather gloves and umbrella – speaks to her elegance and taste. She does not seem overly flirtatious or inappropriate. She does not engage with the man looking at her; rather, she looks straight in front of her, following rules of proper conduct. And yet her faint smile suggests that she may be well aware of the man’s curiosity and attention. Is she enjoying the attention? This female figure is profoundly ambiguous: she resists knowledge or classification, and it is her unknowability that creates the tension permeating this painting.
Delondre’s En omnibus may offer a key to nineteenth-century representations of women passengers in the male-authored documents I have considered here. The ambiguity of the central female figure invites speculations and conjectures and serves as a projection screen for the fantasies and anxieties that agitated nineteenth-century male observers. The cipher-like appearance and comportment of female passengers – so close and yet so remote – were both troubling and titillating. In grappling with gendered perceptions of urban space, writers and artists fashioned a mythology of the omnibus as a ‘vehicle of vice’, imagining it as brimming with prostitutes, wet nurses baring their breasts and other transgressive female characters, producing images that were perhaps appealing to the public but remote from the reality of everyday experience.
Coda: beyond the frame
In 1889, British poet Amy Levy published ‘Ballad of an omnibus’, a poem celebrating women’s freedom of urban locomotion in late nineteenth-century London:
I mark, untroubled by desire,
Lucullus, phaeton and its freight
The scene whereof I cannot tire,
The human tale of love and hate
The city pageant, early and late
Unfolds itself, rolls by, to be
A pleasure deep and delicate
An omnibus suffices me74
This joyful celebration of the omnibus as a medium for a woman’s carefree urban exploration stands in sharp contrast with the male-authored salacious tales and images of sexual transgression examined in this chapter. Although there does not appear to be a textual counterpart to Levy’s poem in the French context, a comparable spirit can be found in En Omnibus (1891), a remarkable colour print by Mary Cassatt (Plate 8).75
The print depicts three interlocking figures – a mother, a nanny and a small child – travelling on the omnibus through Paris. The city is faintly visible in the background, its slender bridges crossing the Seine. The women are seated close together on an omnibus bench. The image speaks volumes about key questions of class, gender, modern motherhood, domesticity, urban life and gendered public spaces. A well-dressed middle-class mother and her nanny are visually linked to one another, both by how the baby is positioned between them and by the way their skirts blend together, distinguished only by a faint shade of colour. The nanny is composed and proper, a far cry from the dishevelled wet nurses we have seen in other works, and the baby, dressed in a frilly outfit, appears to be well behaved and accustomed to city outings such as the one depicted here. While the nanny is engaged with the baby, the mother looks out of the window, seemingly absorbed by something beyond the picture’s frame. It is this absorption that is for me the focus of the image.
In her seminal study on Mary Cassatt, Griselda Pollock interprets this image as a ‘tiny incident of class’.76 For Pollock, it is the relationship between two women of different classes that is at the centre of this image. She argues that Cassatt explores ‘rich possibilities of this simple juxtaposition of modern, classed femininities in public space’.77 While I don’t disagree with Pollock that class relations play an important role here, I want to argue instead that what is at the centre of this image is the way the middle-class mother relates to the public urban space of the omnibus. It is the relationship between the woman and the city, here represented by the omnibus, that draws our attention.
In a preliminary drawing, Cassatt included a top-hatted male figure seated to the women’s right, along with a standing lady.78 It is telling that in the final version of the print, Cassatt excluded this figure, depicting instead the omnibus as a feminine space of introspection. This indeterminacy and the ambivalence of the mother’s gaze, her absorption with what is beyond the frame, are the crux of this image. Where is the mother directing her gaze? Is she curious about another passenger we cannot see? Captivated by the view outside the window? Enchanted by the spectacle of modern life? Is she simply lost in her thoughts in a quiet moment of reflection?
Read against the context of the gendered omnibus mythology, En omnibus presents a stark counterpoint to the numerous nineteenth-century male-authored representations of women on public transport as sexually transgressive and inappropriate. Cassatt is not interested in the omnibus as a site of sexual tensions or erotic pursuits. Indeed, this image likely represents a more typical female experience of public transport – as it actually was, rather than as it was imagined. In this representation of the omnibus interior, female subjectivity is staged in relation to a city space that is decidedly not eroticised. By compositionally linking this image to her domestic scenes, Cassatt may be suggesting that this public space is just one among many where women can safely perform their femininity. The image does not offer an explanation or justification for why these women are on an omnibus journey – they may be going to the park, shopping or visiting. Or perhaps, like Amy Levy, they are simply taking an omnibus ride to enjoy the city pageant – to experience the city in all its urban splendor, ‘a pleasure deep and delicate’ – on their own terms.