Delve into 450 years of literature inspired by the English country house

A revolutionary digital course launched today (Wednesday 23 April 2014) by the University of Sheffield will give people from across the world a unique glimpse into the extraordinary life, culture, drama and literature of the traditional English country house.

Dr Jim Fitzmaurice and Professor Susan FitzmauriceFans of Downton Abbey and Pride and Prejudice will be able to delve into 450 years of literature inspired and set in some of the country’s most magnificent buildings such as Chatsworth House – home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire which has been passed down through 16 generations of the Cavendish family and has one of Europe’s most significant art collections.

The Literature of the English Country House is the second FutureLearn Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) hosted by the University which is transforming education and making learning free and accessible to all.

The eight week course is ideal for literature lovers and costume drama enthusiasts who would like to discover the secrets behind the exquisite English country houses which are steeped in history, romance and sometimes scandal.

Dr Jim Fitzmaurice, Director of Distance Learning from the University of Sheffield, said: “On this course we will be introducing learners to literature as it derives from 450 years of the English country house and we will be seeing how that literature shapes our understanding of the country house.

“We will be travelling together on an historical journey through literature visiting notable country houses around Yorkshire and Derbyshire. You will gain an insight into the life of these country houses and learn about some common misconceptions.”

Learners will explore the magnificent 17th century wall paintings of Bolsover Castle often hailed to be the best of their kind in the country and visit Haddon Hall, frozen in the time of William Shakespeare and a great inspiration for the great gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe 200 years later.

Dr Fitzmaurice will use a wide range of texts spanning the history of literature from Thomas More’s Utopia to Oscar Wilde’s Canterville Ghost, plays from Shakespeare, poetry from Margaret Cavendish and brief passages from Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

Throughout the course participants will learn techniques to analyse literature and make their own connections with the English country house.

Professor Susan Fitzmaurice, Head of the School of English at the University of Sheffield, who is running the course said: “It is rare to encounter literary texts in such close proximity to the contexts, buildings and landscapes that inspired, informed and provoked them.

Dr Jim Fitzmaurice filming at Nostell Priory“This MOOC illuminates poems, plays and prose texts vividly by connecting them to those contexts, buildings and landscapes through a historical lens.

“Leading experts who are passionate about their subject introduce fresh ways of approaching this literature by walking the learner through the world of the English country house.

“If you think historical English literature is crusty and boring, we’re hoping that our MOOC will change that and teach you how to engage with more confidence.”

There are no prerequisites for registering for this or any other MOOC hosted by the University. Education or academic background is not important – budding learners from around the world simply need an internet connection.

The online platform, by which the course is delivered, gives people of all ages the opportunity to take part in a unique, high quality, flexible and innovative learning experience – something which will be of great interest to fans of period dramas such as Downton Abbey which attracts more than 10 million viewers in America alone.

Registration for the course is open today and learning will begin on 2 June 2014. The online lecturers will not only take learners on a literary journey but give them the unique opportunity to go through the key hole of six of Yorkshire and Derbyshire’s most famous addresses.

The Literature of the English Country House follows the success of the University’s first FutureLearn MOOC, Discover Dentistry, which ran earlier this year. More than 4,000 people signed up to the innovative course which delved into the intriguing world of dentistry from molars to canines.

Marie Kinsey, Academic Lead for MOOCs, said: “Many people have visited an English country house or know about them through things they've read.

"This course breaks new ground because it brings together the life and culture of the English country house over 400 years with books, poems and drama set in that world. Leading experts from the School of English will help you learn more about the English country house, and how to dig more deeply into texts that feature aspects of country house life."

Additional information

The Literature of the English Country House
For more information please visit

School of English
To find out more about the University of Sheffield’s School of English please visit

FutureLearn is the first UK-led multi-institutional provider of free, open, online higher education courses. It will offer courses for people to access and enjoy wherever they are in the world on multiple devices.

The FutureLearn course experience centres on social interaction, whereby people learn actively by engaging in conversations around the learning material. The website has also been designed to work on smartphones and tablets, as well as desktop computers, so that learners can enjoy the same high quality user experience, regardless of their screen size. FutureLearn is wholly owned by The Open University. The website combines the best elements of the social web with The Open University’s 44 years of expertise in distance and open learning.

Courses will be created by the Universities of Auckland, Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Leicester, Liverpool, Loughborough, King’s College London, Lancaster, Leeds, Monash, Newcastle, Nottingham, The Open University, Queen’s Belfast, Reading, Sheffield, Southampton, Strathclyde, Trinity College Dublin and Warwick. In addition, the British Council, British Library and the British Museum have all agreed to partner with FutureLearn to share content and their expertise and collaborate in the development of courses through

University of Sheffield
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Amy Pullan
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9859