“They err as men do that argue right from wrong principles”
The Warlow Experiment, by Alix Nathan, is set during the closing decade of the eighteenth century. This was the Age of Reason, also known as the Enlightenment, when European intellectuals were debating ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humanity. The movement instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy and politics, which grew alongside great strides in scientific discovery. It was also a time of social revolution in France leading to numerous wars that took men from their families.
The protagonist of the story is Herbert Powyss, a wealthy bachelor gentleman with an interest in horticulture. He experiments with the cultivation of non-native plants and trees on his small estate in the Welsh Marshes – Moreham House. An avid reader with an interest in scientific reasoning, he dreams of recognition by the Royal Society in London. Realising that his current interests and occupations may not be regarded as consequential, Powyss decides to set up an experiment centring on a willing human subject. He advertises for a man prepared to live alone, underground, for seven years, permitted no contact with the outside world. The subject will be provided with food and comforts, paid a stipend for life, in return for keeping a journal of his thoughts and activities while in solitary confinement.
“his actions would produce something good, a significant contribution to science”
Only one man replies to the advertisement. John Warlow lives locally with his wife and six children. He is a farm labourer surviving in a hand to mouth existence. From childhood he has taken whatever work local landowners will offer. His home is a small, badly maintained cottage, typical of those available to families in his position. He regards Powyss’s scheme as offering the only chance he will ever have to escape poverty. His involvement in the experiment certainly changes the way the Warlows live, but not in ways they could have envisaged.
Powyss’s first mistake is in kitting out the rooms in which his subject will live to entertain someone like him. There are books, a small pipe organ and writing materials. Warlow is semi-literate and used to days filled by hard manual labour. He is determined to earn his stipend but struggles with how to get through each day. The requirement to write in the journal is one he cannot comprehend.
Warlow’s wife, Hannah, visits Powyss each week to collect her husband’s wage. She is wary of wealthy gentlemen, and with good reason. Women at the time had few rights and little recourse to justice should they be violated. Even the social warriors of the time, advocating for wider suffrage, did not consider women in their campaigns.
Wider social changes are explored through Powyss’s servants. He keeps only a small staff as his needs are few compared to his peers. Some of the servants are more loyal than others. They vary in skills and education. Powyss favours his gardener, even when the man starts spreading sedition.
Moreham House becomes a microcosm of issues being fought for across Europe. Despite Warlow being willingly incarcerated, others regard him as a prisoner of the landed gentry. Powyss is assumed to be taking advantage of Hannah. The gardener, who claims to be fighting for freedom for the oppressed, cannot recognise his own controlling relationship with the maid he becomes involved with. He is angered when she proves herself more capable than him of parsing texts the rebels revere.
Powyss, meanwhile, is struggling with the way his experiment is progressing. The settled and solitary existence he had previously enjoyed has been thrown off kilter by Warlow’s habitation of his cellars. The servants complain that the man rarely changes his clothes – the state of them when he does means they must be burned. With no communication allowed, there can only be conjecture on how he is coping. Powyss had envisaged his experiment as ‘the application of cool reason, of impartial, scientific calculation.’ Unlike his plants, a human subject cannot be disposed of if it fails to thrive or infects those in its vicinity.
The structure of the story allows the reader to follow what is happening from multiple viewpoints. Taken within the context of growing social unrest – including complaints over hunger and conscription – there is pleasing depth in the depiction of all social classes and their expectations of each other’s behaviour. Powyss is educated, has travelled the world, but his naivity is the catalyst for a tsunami of destruction. Throughout, Warlow is being used by all he comes into contact with to further their pet causes, whatever the cost to him and his family.
This is the first novel in a long time that I have picked up and read cover to cover in a day. The writing is engaging and well paced, going in directions that maintain momentum. There is much to consider around the actions of the varied and well developed characters. Secondary characters are only introduced with good reason.
The author is not afraid to include the consequences of actions, to follow through on threads that cannot end well. Although a multi-layered narrative it flows with ease. A story that can be taken at face value or as an allegory for the price of progress. This is a recommended read.
The Warlow Experiment is published by Serpents Tail.