Literature of the English Country House (Course on Future Learn)

I'd not intended to overlap courses on Future Learn, because I thought it might end up feeling like it was taking up too much of my time. I was right, but I'm still glad I took the Literature of the English Country House course even tho it has overlapped with two courses that I'd already signed up for. And to be honest it was part of why I found the Portus archaeology course so disappointing in the end (post), because this one was much more to my tastes!

This course was an 8 week course run by Sheffield University about, as you might expect, English literature that deals with or takes place in country houses. All the videos were filmed in country houses so that we could see the sorts of places the texts were talking about. The first seven weeks each looked at a particular aspect of country house literature, roughly moving forwards in time as we went. And then the last week was a review of the previous weeks, and a test to see if you'd got the right idea.

The first week also introduced us to the concept of close reading - it was a course pitched as being for everyone, so this made sure we were all aware of the technique. Whilst it wasn't something I'd ever been formally taught I've been reading a few in depth analyses of books and book series online over the last few years so the concept was familiar to me. The general point is not just to read for the surface meaning, but once you've done that to go back and read more closely paying attention to word choice and the broader context of the piece. This doesn't just show you how the author built up your impression of a scene, but might also give you greater insight into what they are saying (intentionally or unintentionally).

The texts we read were mostly excerpts from longer works tailored to demonstrate the points the course was making. In week one, as well as the skill of close reading (illustrated using a scene or two from Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night), we also looked at modern misconceptions about country houses and country house literature - namely that they were only places of harmony between the elite and the rest of the countryside, and that women didn't write literature in the 17th Century. These were illustrated by a poem by Ben Johnson (To Penshurst) which by praising one place (and family) for its harmonious perfection also lets one know what normality really was. And we also read an excerpt from a work by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.

Week two focussed on entertainment in 17th Century country houses - both the amateur (illustrated by a poem written by a servant to celebrate a child's 2nd birthday) and the professional (illustrated by the scenes from Hamlet where the travelling players visit Elsinore). In week three we looked at politeness in the 18th Century - which they explained was a bit of a broader concept than it is now. It wasn't just about whether you said "please" and "thank you" in the right places, but also the way you spoke, the clothes you wore and whole sum of your public behaviour & presentation. Personally, I think we might still stretch politeness as a term to cover all of that sort of thing, but perhaps I'm not understanding the nuances here. This week was illustrated first with an excerpt from the Spectator, a humorous piece about the differences between country & town manners. And also by an excerpt from a novel by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire featuring a husband who was polite in the mode of the town but very much not nice.

Week 4 was devoted to Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice. The passages we read were about Elizabeth Bennet's visit to Darcy's house - which is thought to be modelled on Chatsworth. And these passages were used to illustrate a narrative technique which Austen used that was revolutionary at the time. This is "free indirect discourse" where the boundaries between the narrator and the thoughts of the character are blurred. In week 5 we turned to the darker side of country house literature - the country house as a sort of malevolent presence or with a weird or reclusive owner. This was illustrated with a gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe (Mysteries of Udolpho) and also by Dickens's Great Expectations. The latter was also used to look at points of view within the story - because the story is told by Pip when he's much older so you get a mingling of the young boy's reaction to Miss Haversham and the older man's more considered view.

The 6th week was all about childhood and the literature devoted to it, which was rather fun. So we had some of Lear's nonsense rhymes, and an excerpt from Alice in Wonderland. And the final week of reading brought us up to the end of the country house era - the 19th Century, and Oscar Wilde. The excerpts this week included a couple from The Canterville Ghost, which started out as a witty look at the trend of wealthy Americans buying up old British country houses from impoverished aristocrats. But by the end (our second excerpt) seemed to've turned into a rather saccharine piece of sentimental Victorian religiousness!

I enjoyed this course a lot. It's a shame I had so many other things on at the time, I'm not sure I entirely did it justice while I was working through it - but the stuff is all still there to go back over again if I want to in the future :)

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