I’m beginning to wonder if I’m undergoing a similar conversion to historical fiction that I did with short stories having read several books over the past year which fit that description, not least Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Truth be told, many of the novels I read are not bang up to date in their setting but I tend to think of historical fiction as taking place well before the twentieth century, often lushly jacketed. Alix Nathan’s The Warlow Experiment fits both those criteria. Beginning in 1793, it tells the story of Herbert Powyss and John Warlow who answers Powyss’ advertisement for a man willing to be sealed underground in solitary confinement for seven years in exchange for fifty pounds for life.
Powyss is a recluse, pursuing an interest in natural science at Moreham Hall in Herefordshire. He has no family, no wife, no children and just one man he calls his friend with whom he corresponds. Frustrated in his ambition to be recognised by the Royal Society, Powyss conceives an eye-catching experiment: a volunteer will live in a luxuriously furnished apartment, complete with library, beneath Moreham Hall with no human contact for seven years. In return, the chosen applicant will receive fifty pounds a year for life and his family will be supported throughout his seven-year confinement. An advertisement is posted laying out these conditions but only one man applies: the semiliterate John Warlow, an agricultural labourer and father of six. In April 1793, Powyss ushers Warlow into his new living quarters, careful to show him the organ of which he is inordinately proud. Warlow is to communicate by note and will be given whatever he wants within reason. In order that he not harm himself, he will have no means of shaving or cutting his nails. Needless to say, things do not go according to plan. Meanwhile, the revolutionary fervour which has gripped France finds a toehold in Britain, its supporters encouraged by the ideas promulgated in Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. In Herefordshire, Powyss’ gardener decides it’s time for the working man to rise up, leading to an act which will unleash a trail of destruction and bring Powyss’ experiment to a dramatic end.
In her author’s note, Nathan explains her novel was sparked by a record in the Annual Register, dated 1797, indicating that such an experiment had reached its fourth year. The Warlow Experiment is her response to this extraordinary idea, telling the story from both Warlow and Powyss’ points of view. Deeply introverted, Powyss is incapable of understanding the potential damage of imposing a regime he might find rather attractive on an uneducated man with no inner resources. There are glimmers of grotesque comedy in Nathan’s story, which exposes the chasm between rich and poor, but she’s careful to avoid caricature: Powyss’ idea is monstrous but it’s as much the product of emotional ignorance as overweening ambition. The servants with their politicking and their resentful self-interested complicity are particularly well drawn. There’s much to enjoy in this absorbing story, well told, but it’s chilling to think that it orginated from an historical record. In a neat illustration of the novel’s theme, if you look closely at that jacket, you’ll notice there are insects crawling over its enticing fruit.