Literature of the English Country House: Coffee Houses and Country Houses in the 18th Century

This week on Literature of the English Country House we arrive in the 18th century. We’re stepping outside of the Country House to explore the world that it occupied and read the writing of a different social class: the aristocracy!

Adam and Susan, our educators this week.

Adam and Susan, our educators this week.

Our guides this week are Professor Susan Fitzmaurice and Dr Adam James Smith, who will begin by advising on some of the best ways to navigate the challenges peculiar to the reading of eighteenth-century literature and offer advice on how to get the most out of it.

Indeed, in a great many ways the 18th century signals the dawn of a new modernity that remains very much with us to this day. So much of what we now take for granted in our every-days lives was introduced during this period. It is perhaps surprising then that an era that seems so recognisable would produce a body of literature so apparently alien and inaccessible. Largely due to the emergence of a new and relatively cheap printing press the 18th century welcomed a new literature that was more responsive, more prolific and populated by more voices than ever before.

Suddenly, a periodical essay could make a statement one day and be attacked by rival periodicals and pamphlets the next. The result of this is an incredibly dense and self-referential body of work which assumes a vast amount of topical information and rarely makes allowances for reader’s unfamiliar with either the political events alluded to or the corresponding literary works being addressed. However, Susan and Adam offer some tips on how to make this writing yield its secrets, revealing that at the heart of this new print culture lies a supremely vibrant, interesting and highly entertaining body of literature that still speaks very explicitly to our interests and anxieties today.

This week consider the parallels between the 18th century and life today.

This week consider the parallels between the 18th century and life today.

To better understand 18th-century society and culture we’ll be comparing town and country. We’ll be visiting the 18th-century coffee house to find out what role sociability played in city life. As part of this there will be an opportunity to watch and discuss ‘The Coffee House’ film, the result of a collaboration between Adam and local film-maker Gemma Thorpe generously funded by Arts Enterprises at the University of Sheffield. The film looks to stress some of the striking parallels between the 18th-century coffee house and coffee shops today.

A later edition of The Spectator from University Library Special Collections.

A later edition of The Spectator from University Library Special Collections.

Once inside the coffee house Adam and Susan examine some examples of this new and exciting print culture from the University Library Special Collections. They look at Joseph Addison and Richard Steel’s Spectator, as well as a later text called The Penny ‘Cyclopedia.

After learning about the politeness, politics and sociability that dominated the coffee houses of the city we’ll trace their influence back to the country house through the writing of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Together we’ll read extracts from The Sylph and find out what the residents of Chatsworth House were thinking and writing about in the closing decades of the 18th century.

* There will also be an opportunity to pose your questions to Susan and Adam during a live on-line Q&A broadcast on Youtube and via Google Hangout.*

Susan and Adam will be available to answer your questions on 16th July 2015 from 7pm until 8pm BST (GMT + 1). The discussion will be streamed live on YouTube and Google+ Hangout. Google users can register their interest to receive an update when the event is about to start. You will be able to send questions and comments either before or during the event by leaving a comment in this step, using the course hashtag #FLHouseLit on Twitter, or by submitting them in the Google Hangout chat window (if you have a Google account).


Here on the blog Adam will be exploring the library of Nostell Priory (near Wakefield), an example of an 18th-century Social House, and PhD student Jamie Morgan will be offering an insight into the tastes of the aristocracy at the dawn of the 19th century!

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