Literature of the English Country House: Servants, Residents and Travelling Players in the 17th Century

As learners prepare to embark on the second week of ‘Literature of the English Country House’, here’s an exciting preview of what to expect on our journey through the 16th and 17th centuries…

Much of this week's course takes place at Hardwick Hall. (Photo by Adam Smith)

Much of this week’s course takes place at Hardwick Hall. (Photo by Adam Smith)

Last week we talked a lot about how an awareness of context and historical conditions could help us enhance our understanding of a text. Our close readings of Ben Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’, for instance, benefited from an understanding of Enclosure and the sophisticated systems of patronage embedded in the production and circulation of early modern poetry.This week we’ll be thinking instead about how literary artefacts can help us to better understand context and aid us in re-constructing and re-imagining historical conditions.

We’ll be using literature to get a better understanding of the people who lived and worked in and around the English country house, considering the the contrasting perspectives of servants, travelling players and residents. This task requires us to return to the University Library Special Collections to examine less familiar forms of literature, such as play-texts, manuscripts and literary letters.

Dr Tom Rutter discusses the extensive editorial process behind the publication of early modern plays texts today.

Dr Tom Rutter discusses the extensive editorial process behind the publication of early modern plays-texts today.

First, using Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Dr Tom Rutter will demonstrate that not only can history help us to understand literature, but that literature can help us to re-construct and re-imagine historical conditions: in this case the dramatic practice of travelling players.

We'll see how literary texts, such as 'Hamlet', can help us to reconstruct historical conditions.

We’ll see how literary texts, such as ‘Hamlet’, can help us to reconstruct historical conditions.

Later in the week Dr Jim Fitzmaurice will introduce us to the field of manuscripts studies and together we will learn of the playful relationship between one servant and his masters. You’ll also get a chance to try your own hand at manuscript transcription, as learners are invited to read and transcribe a manuscript from the Humanities Research Institute’s own digital collection.

A new 'Material Conditions' Step, in which Jim discusses the field of Manuscript Studies.

A new ‘Material Conditions’ Step, in which Jim discusses the field of Manuscript Studies.

Finally, Dr Jim Fitzmaurice and Professor Susan Fitzmaurice will introduce another common form of early modern literature: the literary letter. We’ll hear from a country house resident as we read the literary letters of Margaret Cavendish, encountering as we do so quite a different world of privilege and social etiquette.

Here on the blog we’ll also be hearing from PhD student Kate Gath, who will draw on her own experience working on 17th-century literature to offer guidance to those encountering this period for the first time.

Click here to find out more about the course and sign up for free!

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