Harlaxton Manor – where Americans learn about the Brits
The histories of the US and the UK are closely intertwined. Some might call it a love/hate relationship, but in truth it’s characterised primarily by confusion. I mean, why do the Brits drive on the wrong side of the road? And why can’t Americans learn to spell like the English? These are good questions, and hark back to the misunderstandings that arose during the Second World War when US troops based in the UK prior to D-Day were widely resented for being “overpaid, over-sexed and over here.”
In a noble, but in all likelihood doomed attempt to bridge the great divide, the University of Evansville (Indiana) delivers an immersive British Studies course out of the architecturally splendid Harlaxton Manor, which lies deep in the verdant countryside of the county of Lincolnshire. The Harlaxton College website describes the course in these terms:
British Studies is a Harlaxton signature program, taught by British professors. It is a multidisciplinary program comprising two course options unified by a focus on the issues, historical and contemporary, and cultural trends, that both create and dislocate a sense of national identity in modern Britain.Harlaxton College website, retrieved 29/07/22
It must be a brain-frying experience for young students from the US to spend two semesters based in a building as extraordinary as Harlaxton Manor, but I hope they don’t think it’s in any way indicative of the way real Brits live, or have ever lived. Harlaxton is a fairy tale, simply one man’s breath-taking fantasy cast in stone, courtesy of the vast wealth at his disposal.
A potted history of Harlaxton Manor
The man responsible for Harlaxton Manor was one Gregory Gregory (1786–1854). That’s not the name he was born with, but he adopted it anyway, suggesting to me that he was at least one card short of a full deck.
Gregory evidently came from a wealthy family. He inherited the land on which the Manor now sits, as well as an earlier Harlaxton Manor House dating from the 14th century. He was rolling in money – his inheritance included holdings in various canal and railway companies, as well as a number of coal mines.
So what does a man do when he has more money than good sense? What he does is to let the manor house he has inherited go to rack and ruin, and commission in its place perhaps the most extravagant English country house of the 19th century.
Gregory spent much of the 1820s attached to various British embassies overseas, although exactly what he was up to isn’t clear. But what is known is that during his time away from the UK he spent a fortune buying up works of art. He clearly had a burning passion for European art and architecture, and the money to indulge his obsession.
On returning to his native land Gregory wanted somewhere appropriately palatial to display his acquisitions, and thus was the Harlaxton Manor project conceived. He also had a grand vision, to fuse Elizabethan and Jacobean architectural styles with Baroque, and he hired some of the finest architects of the early 19th century to help him achieve it.
Is Gregory’s Harlaxton Manor a bold, imaginative and ground-breaking masterpiece, or simply an act of narcissistic self-indulgence by a wealthy man possessed of a somewhat delusional mind? Well, I guess the jury’s out on that one. But he was clearly making a statement, something along the lines of I’m so wealthy I can afford whatever I damned well like. Live with it! Modesty, subtlety and restraint were evidently not Gregory Gregory’s strong points.
For what it’s worth – and I confess to knowing nothing much about architecture! – for me the design lacks coherence and perhaps a degree of good taste. Opulence in excess can be oppressive, and jumbles of monumental, bright and shiny stuff are not necessarily beautiful. Sometimes less is more, but Gregory Gregory would never settle for less when he could show off his wealth and status by having (a lot) more.
Having said that, Harlaxton has the wow factor and don’t we all need a bit of wow in our lives sometimes? But I wouldn’t want to live there, even if you paid me!
Work started on Harlaxton Manor in 1832 and ended with Gregory’s demise in 1854. After his death it passed through several owners. During the First World War, the grounds were used to train soldiers in trench warfare, and during the Second World War the Manor was requisitioned and used as the officers’ mess for nearby RAF Harlaxton. Three years after the war ended, the then owner Mrs Violet Van der Elst (inventor of the world’s first brush-less shaving cream!) sold Harlaxton to the Society of Jesus (Jesuits).
The Jesuits’ intention was to use the Manor as a novice centre, where recruits new to the faith would be housed and honed. But things did not go as planned. The anticipated number of 200 novices on site proved wildly optimistic, and when numbers dropped to around 50 the Jesuits decided to cut their losses.
Harlaxton reprieved: the Americans save the day
In 1965, the Jesuits leased the Manor to California’s Stanford University, making it the first American university campus in the UK. Stanford remained at Harlaxton for four years, before moving their “Stanford in Britain” programme to another, less provincial part of the country. It was at this point that the University of Evansville stepped in, leasing the Manor from the Jesuits and opening its international study centre there in 1971. Sixteen years later, in 1987, the University acquired outright ownership and quickly set about making it their own.
Today, during the regular academic year, Harlaxton College hosts over 300 students from the University of Evansville and various other US colleges and universities. During each summer around 1,000 further people attend summer schools, short courses and conferences, and a few lucky couples (loaded with cash, I imagine!) even get married there. Once or twice a year the College holds an open day when locals, and travellers from further afield like Mrs P and I, can visit and gaze in bewildered awe at Gregory Gregory’s architectural excesses.
Harlaxton was buzzing with visitors when we visited earlier this summer, our last trip out before succumbing to Covid. Everyone having a whale of a time. The open day was, as you would expect, impeccably organised and the hosts – all proudly sporting their college shirts – were unfailingly polite.
At one point I fell into easy conversation with one of the Harlaxton crew, a young intern from Charlotte, North Carolina, pointing out to her that the signage directing visitors to the toilets referred to them as “restrooms.” I explained to my new friend that this twee euphemism is a North American confection, and would never, ever be encountered in a genuinely British public building.
Harlaxton Manor may be an extravagantly over-the-top British building nestled deep in the English countryside, but the signage, politeness and organisational polish on show that afternoon made it absolutely plain that we were on US soil. And it felt good!
British Studies? Good luck with that, guys!
My academic life ended many decades ago, but I can’t help but be intrigued by Harlaxton College’s British Studies course. What are they telling those poor American kids about us? Is any of it true? And who is to say what is true, anyway, in these days of division, disharmony and unprecedented change?
The College website proclaims (boasts?) that the course is taught by “British professors.” That sounds like a good thing, but being British and bright doesn’t mean you necessarily fully understand Britishness…my passport proves I’m British and my Cambridge University degree suggests I’m quite bright, but have I totally nailed the essence of Britishness? No, probably not. Maybe I should sign up for the course!
But if I did take the course, I’d appreciate some foreign perspectives on Britishness as well those of the – doubtlessly estimable – “British professors.” Maybe we Brits are just too close to the subject to fully understand what’s going on here.
To its credit, Harlaxton offers a “Meet a Family Experience”, enabling students to get to know some ordinary Brits. In this way they are able to get up close and personal with aspects of British life that might be challenging to convey in erudite College lectures. If we lived closer than a two-hour drive from Harlaxton I’d be tempted to sign up, and then bore some poor unsuspecting youngster rigid with my limited, flawed insights on being British in 2022. I might even try to explain to him – or her – the rules of cricket, but only if I were feeling particularly mischievous.
I’m glad our American cousins, in the guise of the University of Evansville, stepped in to help save Harlaxton Manor, which, for all its architectural excesses, deserves to be saved. I’m also glad that the University is using the Manor as a base to increase mutual understanding between our two great nations. God knows, we both need all the friends we can get right now, don’t we?
But I fear that, however hard Harlaxton tries, the mysteries of British driving and American spelling will be with us all for some time to come!