• The University of Sheffield

Literature of the English Country House

Examine representations of English country houses throughout literature and develop your own interpretations of the texts.

52,281 enrolled on this course

English country house

Literature of the English Country House

52,281 enrolled on this course

  • 6 weeks

  • 3 hours per week

  • Digital certificate when eligible

  • Introductory level

Find out more about how to join this course

Reconstruct the literary history of the English country house

For over 450 years, country houses have attracted the attention of celebrated writers like Thomas More and Charles Dickens.

On this six-week course, you’ll trace depictions of country houses through the works of some of England’s most celebrated writers and some lesser known authors. You’ll journey through the early 16th century to the late 19th century, exploring what the country houses depicted in literature represent and say about society at the time.

Explore the country house as a tool for social commentary

From Jane Austen to Oscar Wilde, many writers throughout history have used their work to highlight social inequality and difference.

Drawing on a range of perspectives including politics and gender, you’ll discuss what close readings of key texts can tell us about contemporary attitudes, and develop your own textual interpretations.

Expand your knowledge of the literary canon

Guided by experts in English Literature, you’ll gain insights from leading academics in the fields of various forms and periods of literature.

Collaborating with your fellow learners throughout, you’ll be introduced to new perspectives and approaches to literature, enriching how you engage with both the texts on this course and beyond.

Access materials from the Special Collections archives at the University of Sheffield

Using archival material including prose, poems, and plays, you’ll develop key close reading skills and research approaches, allowing you to interpret each text more thoroughly and deepen your knowledge of literary history.

By the end of this course, you’ll have explored a wide range of texts centred on the English country house. Using the perspectives you’ve explored, you’ll be able to discuss representations of country houses in literature and engage with texts more deeply.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 18 seconds The country house has been a subject in English literature for well over 500 years. It’s just as prominent in the writing of early modern figures, like William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, as it is in the writing of today. In this course, you’ll read the country house literature of some of our most celebrated authors. From famous authors like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to writers you might be less familiar with like Joseph Addison and Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire. The country house offers an excellent way into the history of English literature and prompts questions like, how is the country house portrayed? What does it represent? What are the enduring appeals to writers and readers?

Skip to 1 minute and 2 seconds We’ll also be taking you into the Special Collections archive at The University of Sheffield. There we’ll explore different ways of writing about the English country house. Of course, we’ll read novels, poetry and plays, but we’ll also consider other genres of writing, like letters, newspapers and periodicals. The archive allows us to reconstruct and revisit country house literature as it originally appeared. We’ll examine handwritten manuscripts and we’ll think about how a mere fragment can come to be a literary text and a window into the past.

Skip to 1 minute and 39 seconds In order to develop a literary interpretation, we’ll learn and practise close reading. This approach focuses on style. It allows us to read between the lines and get under the skin of the text. We’ll speak to scholars at The University of Sheffield about the approaches they take in their research. They will help us to place our close readings in context. These perspectives include history, politics, gender and the connections between different works.

Skip to 2 minutes and 16 seconds By the end of the course, you’ll learn how to produce your own literary interpretations, informed by the material conditions of the production and circulation of texts. You’ll place your readings into context with the help of a wide variety of research approaches. So join us as we embark on our tour of the country house in English literature.


  • Week 1


    • Welcome to the course

      Our educators introduce the texts and approaches that we will be encountering as we embark on our journey through over 450 years of country house literature.

    • An introduction to close reading

      We get to grips with our first literary technique: close reading. In this activity, Susan and Adam explain how close reading can help to build a deeper understanding of a text and invite you to close read a country house poem.

    • Thomas More's 'Utopia'

      Next, we'll look at 'Utopia' by Thomas More. Whilst this text does not feature a 'country house' as such, it does explore important themes such as land use and ownership, and the relationships between tenants and landlords.

    • Research approaches: literature and history

      You'll see three strands running through this course: material conditions, close reading, and research approaches. This week's research approach considers literature's relationship with history.

    • Quiz and review

      A review of the week and the quiz

  • Week 2

    Reconstructing the literature of the country house

    • Welcome to Week 2

      This week we'll be finding out how to reconstruct the country house literature of the 16th and 17th centuries, looking at play-texts, manuscripts and literary letters.

    • Research approaches: context, composition and reception

      Dr Tom Rutter considers a fictional example of travelling players taken from Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' and considers the importance of the various different forms in which a play could have existed.

    • Working with manuscript material

      Now we'll think about another form literature, the manuscript. We'll also find out what an obscure manuscript can tell us about the playful relationship between one servant and his masters.

    • Quiz and review

      A chance to check your knowledge and a look forward to next week

    • Additional activity

      These activities are just for interest and won’t be assessed. If you have the time feel free to undertaken them for extra practise and fun.

  • Week 3

    Politeness and the 18th-century country house

    • From coffee houses to country houses: politeness and conversation in the 18th century

      This week we will learn about 18th-century attitudes to politeness by visiting Nostell Priory, built as a social house, and then Chatsworth, a house much modified over time.

    • Understanding print culture

      In this activity we explore the emerging print culture of the 18th century.

    • Women, politics and the literature of the country house

      An examination of a novel in letters, 'The Sylph', written by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

    • Quiz and review

      A chance to check your knowledge and a look forward to next week

  • Week 4

    Minds and manners: Jane Austen and the country house

    • The country house in 'Pride and Prejudice'

      This week we discuss the importance of Elizabeth Bennet’s trip to Pemberley, thought to have been modelled on Chatsworth House. We show a stylistic technique central to Austen's fiction which marks a turning-point in the novel.

    • Quiz and a look forward to next week

      A chance to check your knowledge and a look forward to next week.

    • Additional activities

      Some additional activities included just for fun.

  • Week 5

    The malevolent or reclusive owner

    • Nameless deeds

      This week we become acquainted with some of the darker characters from later 18th- and 19th-century literature beginning with a look at 'The Mysteries of Udolpho'.

    • Research Approaches: intertextuality

      In these steps, Professor Angela Wright encourages us to consider the special relationship between the writing of Jane Austen and Ann Radcliffe, introducing us to the role of the Gothic in country house literature.

    • Behind closed doors: 'Great Expectations' and the reclusive owner

      The country house was a public space and a private home. But what happened when its owner withdrew from the outside world? To explore this we turn to Charles Dickens’s 'Great Expectations' and the reclusive Miss Havisham.

    • Quiz and reflections on the week

      A chance to check your knowledge and a look forward to next week.

  • Week 6

    Exit through the giftshop: Transformation

    • Oscar Wilde and the end of the century

      This week we look at how Oscar Wilde’s ‘Canterville Ghost’ develops the idea of country house transformation through non-English ownership and examine the subsurface of polite society in ‘Importance of Being Earnest’

    • 'The Importance of Being Earnest'

      In this section we will look at the political contexts of Wilde’s play and how images of ‘polite society’ are not quite as polite as they seem

    • Wilde times

      This week we have looked at Wilde’s version of the English country house tradition. Whilst that tradition might seem to be drawing to a close, Wilde suggests that perhaps a new version of it might rise from the ashes.

    • Check your understanding

      A chance to check your knowledge on Oscar Wilde

    • Making connections

      Share with us your own experiences of visiting country houses and discuss connections to writers and works of literature.

    • Final reflections

      A chance to test your knowledge and a fond farewell

When would you like to start?

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Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Demonstrate 'close reading' skills as the basis for your own literary interpretation
  • Discuss the wide variety of ways country house literature has been composed, consumed and received over the centuries
  • Engage with extracts from novels, poetry and drama from well-know authors as well as lesser known forms of writing from less familiar authors
  • Investigate the role and representation of the English country house in literature
  • Build your own literary interpretation of literature
  • Explore literature in its original form and the context within which it was first written

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for anyone who enjoys reading and discussing literary texts in English. It would be particularly beneficial for those who are preparing for further study in English Literature, building your text analysis skills. If you are already at degree level in English, this course will supplement your studies.

What do people say about this course?

I have told lots of people about this course.

"I have told lots of people about this course as I have found it so enjoyable and I look forward to sitting at my laptop to learn more everyday."

I could do this class again and again.

"I have done this course before but wanted to refresh my learning - what a joy! I think I could do this class again and again and still find something intriguing."

Who will you learn with?

Working in the School of English at the University of Sheffield, we all have a fascination with English country houses, a love of great literature and a desire to share our knowledge with you.

Who developed the course?

The University of Sheffield

The University of Sheffield is one of the world’s top 100 universities with a reputation for teaching and research excellence.

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Ways to learn

Choose the best way to learn for you!

Buy this course

$134/one-off payment

Fulfill your current learning need

  • Access to this course
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Tests to boost your learning
  • Printed and digital certificate when you’re eligible

Subscribe & save

$349.99 for one year

Automatically renews

Develop skills to further your career

  • Access to this course
  • Access to 1,000+ courses
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Tests to boost your learning
  • Digital certificate when you're eligible

Cancel for free anytime

Limited access


Sample the course materials

  • Access expires 3 Sep 2024

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