Literature of the English country house

Update: The long weekend: life in the English country house 1918-1939

The Literature of the English country house MOOC on FutureLearn is being run by Jim and Susan Fitzmaurice, director of distance learning and head of the School of English at Sheffield respectively. Runs for eight weeks from 2 June to 20 July, with a workload of three hours per week. Twitter: @FLHouseLitSheff (posting inter alia selfies and cat spam, trying too hard) and #FLHouseLit:

A journey through the literature of English country houses from the time of Thomas More to Oscar Wilde…you’ll learn to analyse literature using a technique called ‘close reading’. It will help you to make your own connections between country house literature and its historical backgrounds.

A large component of my first degree was studying German literature, but that was a fair while ago…at the moment I’m hoovering up everything available on literature to see what sticks in taking forward literary non-fiction as a writing project. This sticks out as offering an additional angle on the literature of place. In addition, two of the team are described as literary linguists – the use of language within literature of place?

My MOOCs seem to be progressively getting more leisure oriented – well, it is the (Danish) summer! The map of houses on the course got me thinking about some I could research to write about, such as Lauriston Castle in Edinburgh, Malmö and Dragsholm castles for the Bothwell connection, Kierkegaard’s houses…see too the Historic Houses Association.

The warm-up activity has attracted 54 comments. Nope, can’t face it:

Have you ever visited a country house, either in England or elsewhere in the world? What was it like? If you haven’t had chance to visit a country house is there anywhere you would like to visit, and why?

Other than that, there’s lots of close reading.

What is close reading? 

Close reading describes, in literary criticism, the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text. Such a reading places great emphasis on the single particular over the general, paying close attention to individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold as they are read. (Wikipedia)

Close reading differs from general reading in that we go back to the text to reread it, to focus specifically on particular details of language, to dig deep and uncover layers of meaning in the text. Close reading allows us to create an interpretation as well as an understanding of a text…Why read a text closely? Close reading gives us a deeper understanding of what a text could mean. And it allows us to fit texts into their wider cultural and historical context.

  1. First reading – to discover the general meaning of the text, an impression of the narrative, a tone of voice, a sense of a character, and perhaps of the period the text is set in.
  2. Second reading – concentrate attention on the language and structures of the text in order to confirm or test the impressions gained in the first reading, to reach a deeper level of meaning and different layers of meaning. Details like word choice, imagery, sentence structure, and the arrangement of sounds will all provide clues to these meanings.
  3. Third reading – delve into the cultural and historical context, then by using specific words and structures link the text to other texts and its wider context/s.

What do we examine? As we read closely, the word, a passage or scene will catch our attention. Look for what’s unexpected or surprising in a passage, the strikingly apt or especially appropriate. A repeated word may be a key word, or it may point to key words. Engage closely and intently with each word, line and sentence, watch carefully and think about each word and each phrase (the historical and contextual meanings of words); they combine to form chains of meanings; which words are important? why might they be important? Make notes, look up words in the dictionary and highlight phrases.

Close reading also came up in #corpusmooc as the qualitative angle, and in #FLfiction14 – see Read what you want to write. A useful technique IRT writing, editing and translation, but the passages put forward for close reading here aren’t for me so far (excerpts from Twelfth Night, Ben Jonson’s To Penshurst, Thomas More’s Utopia).

Week 2 focused on entertainment in the country house. Discussions allegedly explored the role and relationships between primary textual analysis and secondary information, eg historical or biographical context. Texts still a bit early for me.

Week 3’s historical and cultural context was attitudes to politeness in the 18th century. How important was it to be (and more importantly, to be seen to be) polite? Did everybody regard politeness in the same way? Did views of politeness change over time?

  • relationships between politeness, conversation and sociability (the ability to make people feel at ease in a variety of social situations)
  • the concept of the social house – a house where the owners prided themselves on being able to create an environment for people to be sociable and  at ease with one another; offered opportunities to socialise with people like them; this could extend to the bedchamber in an effort to be sociable, to entertain and not seem rude, leading to glamorous negligees put on to entertain as if you had just got out of bed
  • the language of politeness –  the 18th century notion of politeness was a model of behaviour which eased interaction and sociability among people, different from the modern day notion of minding one’s manners
  • by the end of the 18th century politeness associated less with sociability, more with form – being recognisably polite,
    having taste; more about one’s interest in self expression and impact on those around you than being sociable, paying attention to other people or being cooperative
  • became a target of satire – eg particular ways of speaking which function to exclude other people from that social circle

Fun! Of interest too IRT issues of negative and positive politeness and The Danes.

Week 4 wheeled out Jane Austen, looking at free indirect discourse in Pride and prejudice, a stylistic technique used to bring the reader into the perspectives of the narrator and the characters:

Free indirect discourse is a narrative style which is used for the representation of spoken words or thoughts. It typically appears in fictional prose when a character’s words or thoughts infiltrate the third person narrative, so that the perspective shifts from that of the narrator to that of the character.

Crucially, the style is not explicitly announced, and the speech or thought is not directly attributed to the character. Instead the reader has to rely on a number of stylistic cues to determine whether the character’s point of view is present. These cues include:

  • exclamations and questions
  • subjective or evaluative language which indicates the character’s opinion
  • markers of space and time from the character’s perspective

The heroine’s thoughts are so intermingled in the narrative that it’s often very hard to tell where they stop and where the narrator comes in. We come to understand Elizabeth’s perspective well, but don’t really get into the heads of anybody else. Least of all Darcy’s! Readers’ responses can range from empathy to ironic distance.

On to week 5 and the Gothic, examining Ann Radcliffe’s novel The mysteries of Udolpho and dissecting the reclusive Miss Havisham from Great expectations – skipped. Week 6, feels like it’s dragging on a bit, with rather less about the houses than might be expected, but if you were into children’s lit, specifically Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and nonsense verse, this week was for you. Week 7 explored the end of the century, as seen through Oscar Wilde – the idea of country house transformation through non-English ownership in The Canterville Ghost and the subsurface of polite society in The importance of being earnest. “These texts suggest the end of the English country house tradition, or its possible Anglo-American reformation.”

So just as it was getting interesting we get to week 8, “reviewing 450 years of history, many different locations and a variety of authors and texts” with a marked assessment and a discussion task on making connections between authors and vice versa:

Post a comment suggesting a country house which you would like to visit then reply to another learner’s comment, suggesting a piece of literature that they should read before visiting their chosen house, giving your reasons why it is relevant.

Taking me back to my list of houses to research from week 1.

From the final farewell:

We hope that among other things, what you have taken away from this course are two new ways of reading. The first is contextual reading to place the literature in its cultural and historical context. The second is close reading which is the intense, concentrated engagement with the text which we hope has provided a whole new way of looking at literature.

Yes to both, as a refresher course literary critique, although with a couple of exceptions the selection of texts wasn’t really for me.

See also The country house in Britain 1914-2014 (conference).