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THE VICTORIAN VISITORS by Rupert Christiansen


Culture Shock in Nineteenth-Century Britain

by Rupert Christiansen

Pub Date: May 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-87113-790-9
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

A lively examination of the influence of foreign intellectuals in Victorian England—seen here as both more cosmopolitan and less strait-laced than our popular conceptions generally allow.

Christiansen (Paris Babylon, 1995) notes 19th-century English society was receptive to a very wide variety of cultural influences, whose impact he examines in six long essays. In one, he depicts the painter Théodore Géricault as a fragile youth tormented by dreams of artistic fame and driven to find an audience in London—which, to a large degree, he did (his famous Raft of the “Medusa” caused a sensation when it was exhibited in Piccadilly in 1820). The composer Richard Wagner, also motivated by his stalled career, was less enthralled by repeated visits to the British capital, wondering aloud whether “anything [is] more repugnant than the real genuine Englishman.” Although Christiansen suggests the London music establishment found Wagner “exasperating” (or worse) in return, he notes that “In 1855 Wagner’s music had been freakish, marginal; by 1877 it assumed a central position in . . . Victorian culture.” By contrast, the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1847 voyage from America is portrayed as a personal journey meant to assuage his own deep spiritual melancholy. Emerson lectured frequently, however, and he was sufficiently well-received that his journal (English Traits) became a bestseller and his transcendentalist philosophy soon took root in Victorian thought. Later chapters explore how seemingly frivolous trends instigated by particular foreigners—American “spirit rappers” (mediums), Australian cricketers, and Italian purveyors of “exotic dancing” (essentially ballet)—took on a popular resonance that outlasted the Victorian era and entered the mainstream of British cultural life.

A nimbly written, satisfyingly detailed survey, suggesting new directions in considering the Victorian era.