This is a story of two men. One plays at being a god. The other grabs a chance to escape poverty. The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan is about power, ambition, control, the disintegration of respect and vanishing of common sense. What a breath of fresh air this book is; it is so unusual. The country gentleman who conducts the experiment, Powyss, is an isolated character. He has no family and, when he has the idea of experimenting with the life of another man, thinks he is doing good by supporting the man’s family. In truth he seeks the approbation of the Royal Society.
Warlow is a farm labourer who scrapes a living at the edge of starvation, struggling to feed this family. When he sees an advertisement asking for a man to take part in Powyss’s experiment, he sees it as an escape. So what is the experiment? Powyss is a man who experiments with exotic seedlings and plants. He sources them from abroad and studies them, experimenting with conditions – soil, temperature, water – to see which flourish in the climate of the Marches climate. It is a short step for him to wonder how a man would fare without seeing a human face for seven years. A cellar is converted in Powyss mansion, furnished with carpets, bedstead and comfortable mattress, an organ, books, writing equipment and a dumb waiter lift which is the only means of communication with above. He is forbidden to talk to anyone; his needs are communicated by notes sent up in the lift. But Powyss forgets to vary Warlow’s conditions, whose surroundings remain the same. He is below ground with no natural light; the only sign of changing daylight and season is from the frogs that find their way into his cellar via a grating. At the beginning both men are happy with the scheme; both think they benefit. Powyss makes his observations; Warlow escapes his grinding life of work and poverty. He was knocked around by his father, and now knocks around his own kids. He longs for something better and decides that when he gets out, he will have earned enough money not to work and so will drink all day instead. Neither man realise what they have undertaken.
The story is told by three people; Powyss, Warlow and Catherine, a servant in the Powyss household. I would also like to have heard the first hand story of Mrs Warlow, who has quite a part to play. The beginning of Warlow’s viewpoint reminds me of Emma Donoghue’s Room; the repetition of simple detail as he studies his surroundings, he focuses on the functional. He is barely literate but, as Powyss impresses on him that it is part of his job to write a journal, Warlow begins to write. Nathan’s portrayal of the early attempts of this uneducated man to write, the bad spelling, the stumbling expression, are convincing; later I wanted his stream of consciousness ramblings to be more concise. The imprisonment represents only the first part of the story; there is more to tell than the experiment itself. The servants in Powyss household become uncomfortable with their part in the proceedings, they also observe Mrs Warlow as she visits the house to receive the payment from Powyss promised as part of Warlow’s contract. Unknown to her, Mrs Warlow becomes the subject of a secondary report into the ‘lateral effects’ on the man’s family.
A sub-plot sets this story in its time. Revolution rumbles on in France and there are demonstrations in London against the King and prime minister Pitt. Head gardener Abraham Price is a rebel who seduces housemaid Catherine with talk of improvement, of rights, of freedom without masters. This country mansion in the Marches reflects the class tensions in the country – rich/poor, vote/no vote. Powyss receives the latest information about politics and uprisings in letters from his London correspondent. In exchange for boxes of fruit, Fox is the only voice Powyss hears from outside his insular world. He questions the morality of the experiment but Powyss refuses to listen; he also fails to see how the servants observe the experiment with dislike. He is a naïve man who fails to understand he is destined to be part of the experiment too.
This is such an unusual subject and in an Author’s Note, Nathan explains where she got the idea. She read a report of a man in 1797 who conducted such an experiment as that of Powyss. She was intrigued and wrote two short stories, one from the viewpoint of each man. After that, she realised there was a bigger story to tell. I’m glad she did. It is an unusual, absorbing read. It deserves time to be read, so please don’t rush it.
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THE WARLOW EXPERIMENT by @alixnathan #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3UJ via @SandraDanby