Masha Belenky
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Final stop

When the omnibus was first introduced on to the streets of Paris, it irrevocably changed everyday life, the lived urban environment and the nature of human relationships among Parisians. But the biggest impact of this new form of transport was on the literary and cultural imagination. In literature and popular visual culture, authors and artists mused on the effects of the omnibus upon the city, its inhabitants and society as a whole. Deploying it as a narrative form, they sought to capture a broad scope of human experiences contained within the confines of the vehicle. A laboratory of social relations, the omnibus offered an ideal space for social observation and storytelling. In just a few short years, the omnibus became a topos of popular literature and visual culture – both in the literal sense of a place and as a commonplace of this corpus. Yet what distinguishes this topos of urban travel is that its true concern is rarely travel at all. As I have argued in this book, when nineteenth-century documents talk about the omnibus, it is about much more than a journey from one part of the city to another. Instead, the omnibus became a way to broach an astonishingly wide range of issues: social mobility, urban alienation, anxiety about class mixing, discomfort and fascination with women in public spaces, the fragmentation and rapidity of modern life and the breakdown of boundaries between the public and the private. In other words, the nineteenth-century omnibus became what we can call a ‘super-topos’,1 a concept and a form that because of its very ‘omni-ness’ – its all-encompassing nature – enabled writers and artists to grapple with multiple facets of modernity.

What emerges most powerfully from these representations is the ambivalence of the omnibus as an emblem of urban modernity. Was it a symbol of progress? Or a painful reminder that the pace of city life accelerated to the point of dehumanising urban dwellers? A metaphor for social equality? Or a visible symbol of class oppression? A site of imagined female transgressions? Or a schoolroom of proper manners? All these conflicting meanings were encompassed within and projected upon the space of the omnibus. To study nineteenth-century representations of the omnibus is to confront its paradoxes. I will conclude with two competing visions of the omnibus from the late nineteenth century: one shared by Fortuné du Boisgobey, a prolific and popular author of detective fiction, and Emile Zola, both of whom imagined the vehicle as a symbol of destructive modernity, and one from Octave Uzanne, who offered a portrait of the omnibus as a relic of a genteel past imbued with nostalgia.

Fortuné du Boisgobey’s popular crime novel of 1881 titled Le Crime de l’omnibus begins with a brutal murder. On a cold winter night in Paris, a young and beautiful woman is mysteriously killed while riding on a crowded midnight omnibus heading to the Place Pigalle. Remarkably, other passengers do not become aware of the young woman’s death until the omnibus reaches its final destination and the novel’s protagonist, Paul Freneuse, along with the conductor are faced with her lifeless corpse. The rest of this fast-paced novel’s rather improbable plot, with its many twists and turns, revolves around solving the mystery of this murder. The assassin, it turns out, was another passenger, a woman whose face is hidden behind a thick veil (‘une épaisse voilette lui cachait le visage’).2 The murder itself is facilitated by the configuration of the omnibus seating: placing herself next to her future victim, the murderess takes advantage of a bump in the road that causes passengers to fall against each other, to prick the young woman’s arm with a poisoned needle. The victim dies instantly, while unsuspecting fellow passengers around her go about their business, assuming that the young woman is simply asleep, as are many other riders of the nocturnal omnibus. Du Boisgobey’s novel amplifies the dangers of urban life and the anxieties associated with it: the anonymity of public transportation as well as a kind of enforced proximity to strangers make this crime possible, even easy. Above all, it highlights a sense of profound alienation, the ultimate evil of modern urban life: one can die in the midst of a crowd without anyone noticing. Here the omnibus serves as an accessory to murder – both because its physical setting makes it possible and because it fosters an environment devoid of personal connection. Du Boisgobey could have disposed of his heroine without having recourse to a complicated and implausible plot line, yet he casts the omnibus as complicit in her murder because it embodied the dangers of modernity.

This idea finds its fullest realisation in Emile Zola’s 1883 novel Au Bonheur des Dames. The omnibus is depicted as an instrument of physical mutilation and death, and as a symbol of a ruthless modern world. Set in the early days of the Second Empire, Zola’s novel recounts the birth of the first department store in Paris and the dramatic and often traumatic shift from traditional forms of commerce to the capitalist consumer economy. The rise and the spectacular success of the fictional department store, Au Bonheur des Dames, brings about the ruin of small traditional shops in the neighbourhood, which is literally and figuratively demolished to make room for the ever expanding grand magasin, the main agent of modern commerce – and the omnibus serves as a stand-in for the ‘creative destruction’ this commerce engenders.

First, we learn that M. Lhomme, the head cashier, has lost his right arm in an omnibus accident. This foreshadows a dramatic episode later in the novel, when Robineau, a small shopkeeper whose silk-fabric shop was run out of business by Au Bonheur des Dames, throws himself under the wheels of a speeding omnibus. Unable to compete with the big department store, Robineau is one of many shopkeepers whose physical demise or injury figuratively represents the death of traditional commerce. Zola’s text explicitly equates the two ‘modern machines’ – the department store and the omnibus – as embodying the exhilaration and the dangers of the new. When the injured Robineau is brought home, he explains to his wife how, overwhelmed by the idea of his impending bankruptcy, he resorted to suicide: ‘Je descendais la rue de la Michodière, j’ai cru que les gens du Bonheur se fichaient de moi, cette grande gueuse de maison m’ écrasait… alors, quand l’omnibus a tourné, j’ai songé à Lhomme et à son bras, je me suis jeté dessous…’3 (I was going down rue de la Michodière; I thought that the Bonheur people were laughing at me, that tramp of a store was crushing me… so when an omnibus turned the corner, I thought of Lhomme and his arm, and I threw myself under…). The word ‘écrasait’ here applies not to the omnibus that literally crushes Robineau’s legs but to Au Bonheur des Dames, which suffocates his business, deprives him of his livelihood and destroys his dignity. The omnibus and the department store are clearly conflated into one image of the dangerous modern world that destroys everything and everybody that gets in its way as it triumphantly rushes toward progress. In his Dossier préparatoire for the novel, Zola famously declared that he wished ‘dans Au Bonheur des Dames faire le poème de l’activité moderne’ (in Au Bonheur des Dames, to write a poem to modern activity), and the novel has been heralded as one of his most optimistic works. Yet we see the text’s ambivalence vis-à-vis this very activité moderne, or modernity itself, because of its alienating effect and the ease with which it obliterates the weak who cannot keep up with its pace. And this ambivalence is embodied in the department store’s dangerous double: the omnibus.

A very different vision of the cultural valence of the omnibus emerges from Octave Uzanne’s 1900 article ‘Omnibus de Paris’. For Uzanne, the omnibus represents nostalgia:

Les omnibus parisiens… sont très arriérés, vieux jeu, très papa sinon très grand-papa; toutefois, ailleurs, on circule, on est emporté comme un billet roulé dans un pneumatique, mais on ne voyage pas. Il n’y a que dans ces vieux fourgons, que le monopole de la municipalité maintient à Paris, que nous pouvons aimablement gaspiller notre temps, tisser les idylles, des romans, des églogues, flâner sans souci, nous sentir vivre enfin.4

(Parisian omnibuses… are very backwards, old game, very daddy, even granddaddy; yet, on other modes of transport, you are carried off like a piece of paper in a pneumatic tube, but you don’t actually travel. It’s only in these old wagons that the municipal monopoly maintains in Paris that we can leisurely waste our time, spin idylls, novels and eclogues, stroll worry-free – in short, feel alive.)

Contrasting the outmoded omnibus with the technologically advanced system of pneumatic tubes, which were used to deliver letters within Paris from 1866 until 1984, Uzanne explains that other modes of transport dehumanise travellers, who are blown from place to place like mere pieces of paper (perhaps this is a reference to the newly inaugurated Metropolitain). Instead, the slow pace of the omnibus allows you to deeply engage with the city, and above all it inspires creative endeavours. Uzanne’s choice of words here (idylles, églogues and, of course, flâner) explicitly evokes associations of omnibus travel with writing and more broadly the idea of the city as literary inspiration. A relic of the past, yet so much part of the present, the omnibus thus offers Uzanne a perfect view of tradition and modernity and the intricate ways the two notions are intertwined.

Zola, du Boisgobey and Uzanne perfectly capture, each in their own way, the diverse facets of the nineteenth century that the Parisian omnibus represented and that I have explored in this book: a material change in the fabric of the city, new forms of sociability, social and economic mobility, alienation and flux. But it is above all the cultural work it performed that made the omnibus a powerful engine of modernity.


1 I thank Christopher Prendergast for suggesting this term to me (Symposium on Literary History and Topology, May 2018, University of Copenhagen).
2 Fortuné du Boisgobey, Le Crime de l’omnibus (Paris: Encrage, 2005), p. 10.
3 Emile Zola, Au Bonheur des Dames (Paris: Flammarion, 1999), p. 448.
4 Uzanne, ‘Omnibus de Paris’, p. 494.
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Engine of modernity

The omnibus and urban culture in nineteenth-century Paris


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