I mentioned ‘The Warlow Experiment’ by Alix Nathan in my Booker Prize longlist predictions post in July as a possible contender for the 2019 prize. Even though my prediction about the dominance of historical fiction on this year’s longlist ended up being way off the mark, I was intrigued by the premise of this particular novel which is based on a real experiment proposed in the late 18th century. Nathan came across a brief article in the 1797 edition of the Annual Register which suggests that someone had taken up the offer posted by a Mr Herbert Powyss a few years earlier to spend seven years living in total isolation in the cellar of his manor house in the Welsh Marches. Only one person applied: a labourer who was apparently attracted by the reward offered by Powyss of 50 pounds per year for life in order to provide for his large family. However, further information about the outcome of the experiment is unknown and Nathan’s imagining of the scenario is therefore entirely fictionalised.
In comfortable purpose-built rooms, the subject is said to have access to three meals per day served via dumbwaiter, a bathtub, chamber organ and “as many books as the occupant should desire” with other conveniences provided. However, the requirement for the subject “to let his toe and fingernails grow during the whole of his confinement, together with his beard” and to not see another human face or any natural light for seven whole years might be considered slightly less appealing even for most introverts. In Nathan’s interpretation of events, the semi-literate labourer who takes up the offer is named John Warlow. Powyss gravely underestimates the consequences of his experiment and Nathan presents a convincing portrayal of what happens to someone living in such extreme conditions and the deep psychological ramifications that the experience can cause with tragic results.
Nathan originally wrote two short stories about the scenario, one from Powyss’s view from above and one from Warlow’s view from below. I haven’t read these versions which can be found in her collection of stories ‘His Last Fire’, but I would be interested to see how they compare to the novel. Other reviewers have suggested that the extra subplots included in the novel about the influence of Enlightenment ideas, political unrest and how Powyss’s servants and Warlow’s family are affected by the experiment are unnecessary, compared to the more focused content of the original stories. However, even though the concept behind the plot has some limitations in terms of narrative drive, Nathan builds the tension of the situation towards a terrifying conclusion and also employs her diligent research very well.
Overall, ‘The Warlow Experiment’ is a well-executed piece of historical fiction with an intriguing subject matter.