The Visitors are the French painter Theodore Gericault, German composer Richard Wagner, American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson and a variety of cod spirit-mediums (or should that be media?), Australian cricketers and exotic dancers. What this disparate group has in common is that they all spent time in Britain in the 19th century. Why "visitors"? Because, says author Rupert Christiansen, they were none of them explorers, sociologists or political refugees, they were all just passing through: "at bottom their purpose for making the trip was the venal one of taking financial advantage of the richest and most powerful nation on earth".
Each of these people or groups of people gets a chapter to themselves, and Christiansen's urbane and pleasant prose sketches out their experiences, managing to build up a picture of 19th-century Britain in the process. Some of the chapters are better than others. Wagner, for instance, comes out of this book as little more than a fretful prima donna with an unpleasant tendency towards anti-semitism. The chapter on table-rappers, on the other hand, is often hilarious in detailing the ineptitude of these con artists: Mrs W Hayden, for instance, whose speciality was answering questions telepathically. G H Lewes "privately wrote down questions and "sent" them mentally. Did the ghost of Hamlet's father have seventeen noses? Yes. Was Pontius Pilate an American? No. Is Mrs Hayden an imposter? Yes". Another person at the seance telepathically asked how many children he was going to have, letting Mrs Hayden know only that an answer in numbers was required. The answer came back: 136. Christiansen's scholarship is not the most up-to-date, but his book is always vivid and entertaining, and he illustrates one his central points very well indeed: that there is not a block thing called "Victorianism". "There were no statistically average bourgeois Victorians, only millions of men and women with their individual lives, thoughts and feelings". --Adam Roberts