Literature of the English Country House: Meet Samraghni Bonnerjee!

On Monday 27 June 2016 the School of English’s flagship MOOC returns. Literature of the English Country House, which offers a literary tour of English Country House history, is free to take and open to all. This time we’re also delighted to welcome a brand new course mentor. In this, our first new post of 2016, let’s finally meet Samraghni Bonnerjee!

Samraghni picture

What are you working on at the University of Sheffield?

“For my PhD, I work on a comparative study of British and German nurses of the First World War. I read diaries and memoirs in English and German, written by women who volunteered as nurses as well as trained professionals, in War hospitals in belligerent countries or at the Front during the First World War. I compare the differences (or similarities) in their motivations to help with the War effort; to march to the Front; their attitudes to combat; how they coped with wounded, vulnerable, naked male bodies; how they bore witness to pain; and how they experienced and represented trauma.”

Why did you want to be a mentor on the MOOC?

“I was drawn to the uniqueness of a course dedicated to literature of the country houses, and wanted to be a part of it. I was also intrigued by the popularity of the course. I wanted to be involved in a way which would let me liaise with the educators and the learners, as well as engage in the discussions with the learners. I realised that being a mentor would give me that privilege.”

What is your favourite example of country house literature and why?

“I have quite a few favourites. The first that comes to mind is of course, Pemberley from Pride and Prejudice. The scene where Elizabeth walks around the majestic halls and grounds of Pemberley and slowly changes her mind about Mr Darcy is unforgettable. I still remember the first time I read it as a thirteen year old by candlelight—we had had a power cut that evening—in a small town in North Bengal, India. I was holding my book very close to the candle and imagining what a country house in England looked like. I hadn’t watched any BBC period dramas yet.”

Chatsworth House. The real Pemberley?

Chatsworth House: the real Pemberley?


“My other favourite country house is from one of my favourite novels, Brideshead Revisited. The novel is as much about Catholicism as it is about the house as a site of memory. I am fascinated with the idea of how a house often goes much beyond from being a historical monument, to (as in the case of Brideshead), being a monument of aesthetic values, and a living and throbbing shrine dedicated to memory.  In fact the first country house I visited after moving to the UK was Castle Howard, where both the TV series and the more recent movie was shot. It was December, so quite a bleak time of the year, but the Christmas lights were on, and several groups scattered all around the house were singing Christmas carols. I found it ethereal. Although the rose garden where Charles and Sebastian (with Aloysius in tow) share the famous scene (“If it could only be like this always—always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe and Aloysius in a good temper . . .”) was shut, I managed to take a photograph through the railings.”
Are there any links to Country Houses in your own work?

I am very interested in finding out more about the country houses that were turned into hospitals during the First World War, and the ladies from these country houses who volunteered as nurses either in their homes, or at War hospitals elsewhere in the country, or went to the Front. Downton Abbey is an example from popular culture of a country house that functioned as a hospital during the War. Historically there were several country houses scattered across the country which operated as hospitals during the First World War. Mount Stuart House in the Isle of Bute was transformed into a naval hospital; Hopetoun House near Edinburgh became an auxiliary hospital; during the course of the War, Dunham Massey in Cheshire metamorphosed into Stamford Military Hospital; Brancepeth Castle in County Durham was used as a hospital by convalescents during the War. And then there was Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, who set up the Millicent Sutherland Ambulance, and starting at a convent in Namur, travelled with her mobile hospital across the Western Front. Then there was Teresa Hulton from Attingham Park in Shropshire and Bridget Talbot from Kiplin Hall in North Yorkshire, both of whom ran canteens for wounded Italian soldiers in Cervignano, on their way to base hospital in Northern Italy.

In summer 2015, I worked as a research assistant in the private archives of Renishaw Hall. It was a very unique experience, different from working in most archives and libraries, because the Sitwell family still live in the house. Hence tea was made in the family kitchen, and lunch was taken in the housekeepers’ drawing room.

I am also part of a research group called Yorkshire Country House Partnership (YCHP). This is a collaboration between the three White Rose Universities (Sheffield, York and Leeds) and the 12 country houses that form the YCHP. The aim of the partnership is to work with the country houses and universities through a series of workshops leading to a conference, the publication of a monograph, and putting together an exhibition by 2018/19. The theme of the conference is, ‘Travel and Transport and the English Country House’.”

What are you most looking forward to on the course?

Unsurprisingly, I am really excited about the week dedicated to Jane Austen (Week 4). I am also looking forward to the week on coffee-house culture in the eighteenth century, and politeness and conversation in the country house (Week 3).


To join Samraghni on our tour the literary history of the English Country House, for free, sign-up here!

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