Discovering the truths about the real Downton Abbey

Sheffield University hopes to attract fans of Downton Abbey to sign up for its new course on country houses.
Sheffield University hopes to attract fans of Downton Abbey to sign up for its new course on country houses.
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From whirlwind romances to family scandals, Sarah Freeman reports on how one Yorkshire university is planning to expose the secrets of Yorkshire’s country houses.

The plots were often unlikely, the acting occasionally a little hammy, but there was one thing Downton Abbey could always rely on. Whatever was happening upstairs or downstairs, the house always looked good.

Set on a fictional Yorkshire estate, Julian Fellowes series fed a peculiarly British appetite for stories of the landed gentry. We are after all the nation which collectively broke out into a cold sweat when Colin Firth played Mr Darcy in that fountain scene and are rarely happy than spending Sunday afternoons pottering round a gift shop of some historic property or other.

It’s a fascination which has not been lost on Sheffield University which is now directly targeting fans of both Downton and Pride and Prejudice. To enrol on its new eight week course, which promises to expose the secrets of some of Britain’s most iconic properties, you don’t need an armful of A-levels or an impressive list of outside interests and relevant experience. All that’s required is an insatiable curiosity to discover what really went on between the four walls of some of countries most historic estates, a love of English literature and, most crucially of all, an internet connection.

“The aim is to take people through the keyhole of six famous addresses in Yorkshire and Derbyshire,” says Dr Jim Fitzmaurice, the university’s director of distance learning. “It’s ideal for 18th-century literature lovers and costume drama enthusiasts who would like to discover the secrets behind some exquisite English country houses which are steeped in history, romance and sometimes scandal.

“By delving into 450 years of literature by the likes of Thomas Moore, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen we will go behind the scenes of these imposing estates and find out what life was really like for those who lived there.

“We will be exploring the magnificent 17th-century wall paintings of Bolsover Castle, often hailed to be the best of their kind in the country, we’ll be visiting Haddon Hall, frozen in the time of William Shakespeare and which was a great inspiration for the great gothic novelist Anne Radcliffe 200 years later.”

Delivered through a series of online lectures, the course - only the second the university has run - is also about opening up academia to those that might not otherwise benefit from the university’s expertise.

“It’s something which happens in America,” says Dr Fitzmaurice, who himself hails from Arizona. “Partly that’s because in the US studying for a degree is so expensive that universities like Harvard have seen it as a way of redressing the balance.

“There might not be quite the same financial barriers to a university education in this country, but the philosophy is much the same. We have a large pool of expertise and if there is a way of sharing that with as many people as possible then so much the better. Downton Abbey attracts more than 10m viewers in America alone and if we can pique the interest of a tiny fraction of those then it has to be good for the university.”

The course forms part of the Open University’s Future Learn scheme which is currently offering lecturers in money management, global food security and getting a grip on mathematical symbolism. Against those, The Literature of the English Country House should be an easy sell.

“We are hoping to change the minds of those who think English literature is crusty and boring,” says Professor Susan Fitzmaurice, head of the school of English at the University of Sheffield. “It’s rare to encounter literary texts in such close proximity to the buildings and landscapes that inspired, informed and provoked them.”

To register on the course, which will begin on June 2 for eight weeks go to www.futurelearn.com/courses/country-house-literature.