THE VICTORIAN VISITORS: Culture Shock in Nineteenth-Century Britain
"I find it impossible to imagine anything more repugnant than the real genuine Englishman," averred the celebrated German composer Richard Wagner upon his first visit to London in 1855. Yet, as Christiansen (Prima Donna; Romantic Affinities) ably demonstrates, English culture in the Victorian era was transformed and infinitely enriched by the presence of foreigners on British soil. Consisting primarily of narrative accounts of the visits made to England between 1820 and 1914 by a series of notable outsiders—from the French painter Géricault to Ralph Waldo Emerson to a team of Aboriginal Australian cricketeers to ballet dancers from the Continent and the States—this is a lively tale of the ongoing culture clash between visitors and visited; sometimes it is gentle or even imperceptible, other times profound or unsettling. Drawing on a wealth of primary materials—letters, diaries and the like—Christiansen here offers a fascinating approach to cultural history: by filtering the mores, manners and customs of the British through the perceptions of astute outsiders, he is able to construct a more complex and multifaceted portrait of Victorian society than conventional histories allow. But what's really of interest here is the underlying premise that the Victorians and their visitors merely represent a single instance of a continual process whereby all cultures are enlivened and enlightened by the intrusion of foreigners into their milieu. In a sense, of course, that's obvious, of course, but Christiansen's deft depictions of the sometimes wholly unexpected ways in which these visitors influenced all manner of English customs, values and beliefs make his thesis both credible and insightful. Illus. not seen by PW. Agent,: Emma Parry, Carlisle and Co. (May)
Forecast:Charming though this is, its primary audience probably lies on the other side of the pond, where Christiansen is opera critic for the Daily Telegraph and a regular contributor on the arts to other publications.