What kind of person keeps a man underground for seven years?
And who would agree to be part of such an experiment?
Herbert Powyss lives on a small estate in the Welsh Marches, with enough time and income to pursue a gentleman’s fashionable cultivation of exotic plants and trees. But he longs to make his mark in the field of science – something consequential enough to present to the Royal Society in London.
He hits on a radical experiment in isolation: for seven years a subject will inhabit three rooms in the cellar of the manor house, fitted out with books, paintings and even a chamber organ. Meals will arrive thrice daily via a dumbwaiter. The solitude will be totally unrelieved by any social contact; the subject will keep a diary of his daily thoughts and actions. The pay? Fifty pounds per annum, for life.
Only one man is desperate enough to apply for the job: John Warlow, a semi-literate labourer with a wife and six children to provide for. The experiment, a classic Enlightenment exercise gone more than a little mad, will have unforeseen consequences for all included. In this seductive tale of self-delusion and obsession, Alix Nathan has created an utterly transporting historical novel which is both elegant and unforgettably sinister.
Herbert Powyss, desperate to make a contribution to the field of science, hits upon the idea for an experiment, the results of which he intends to publish in a paper:
Investigation into the Resilience of the Human Mind Without Society
Advertising for a volunteer to take part, he receives only one response from semi-literate labourer, John Warlow. The rooms that Warlow will occupy for the next seven years have been kitted out with every conceivable luxury, but for a labourer with little education, what need is there of an organ, and books ranging from fiction to works of philosophy?
It’s clear from the beginning that Warlow and Powyss are utterly incompatible, and this sets a note of foreboding for the reader, particularly as Powyss seems to sense that Warlow may not be the right person for the experiment, but decides to carry on regardless. In order to understand the impact that isolation has on a person, Warlow is required to keep a journal of his thoughts and feelings. Powyss intends to use this as evidence in his paper to show the resilience – or otherwise – of a person deprived of society and human contact. Warlow is unable to tell the time, and judges the hour by the delivery of his food after the destroying the clock to stop it ticking (an action with which I sympathise completely!) and it doesn’t take long for him to lose track of the days and months that pass. Having had little education, he has no idea what to write in the journal, and so barely writes anything at all. The reader quickly picks up on the flaws in the design of the experiment, despite Powyss’ planning, and I think that it’s obvious from the beginning that the experiment won’t succeed, although the nature of that failure, how it comes about, and the after effects on Warlow and the other characters were unexpected.
The novel is told from various perspectives – mostly Powyss and Warlow, but also John’s wife, Hannah, and members of Powyss’ staff. The novel is set at a time of civil unrest, with men clamouring for the right to vote irrespective of status and, inspired by the French Revolution, beginning to demand more rights. Powyss has very few staff, and has little to do with them if it can be helped, but his household is a perfect microcosm of wider society as they become bolder, their behaviour bordering on insolence at times. This provides a wonderful backdrop to the story, helping to set the scene, and highlighting the difference in status of Powyss, his staff, and Warlow. Of course, this comes along time before women’s suffrage, although Catherine – one of Powyss’ maids – is ahead of her time in wondering why women can’t also fight for the right to vote if men are.
The characters in the novel are interesting although unlikeable for the most part. Warlow might garner sympathy for his situation were it not for the fact that he beats his wife and children, and has likely forced himself on Hannah in the past when the mood takes him, behaviour which has seen her give birth to twelve children, of which six are alive at the time of the experiment. To see him locked away for seven years, allowing his wife and children some breathing space, was, in my mind, no bad thing at all. Powyss comes across as an eccentric. He eschews society and company as much as possible, preferring his plants to other humans. One can’t help but think that his experiment probably seemed idyllic in his own mind – seven years, with no contact, and the time to read, play the organ, to do whatever a man might wish to do without any day to day goings on to worry about. I felt that he was driven to run this experiment by a desire for notoriety rather than to make any meaningful contribution to the world of science, and he fails to remain objective in his observations – another signal to me that his experiment would not turn out as planned.
The Warlow Experiment packs one hell of a punch for such a short volume, and this is a superb yet chilling novel and one that is quite unlike anything else I’ve read. It’s an unusual concept, and is all the more fascinating for being based upon a genuine advert from the late 18th century. There was no reference of the outcome, but the advert inspired Alix Nathan to write this wonderful tale.
The Warlow Experiment is published by Serpent’s Tail, and is available in digital and hardback formats, with the paperback scheduled for release next April.