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The Warlow Experiment

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The year is 1792 and Herbert Powyss is set on making his name as a scientist. He is determined to study the effects of prolonged solitude on another human being, though before now Powyss's sole subjects have been the plants in his greenhouse. He fills three rooms beneath Moreham House with books, paintings and even a pianoforte, then puts out an advertisement, hoping for a gentleman recluse to claim the substantial reward.

The only man desperate enough to apply is John Warlow, a semi-literate farm labourer who needs to support his wife Hannah and their six children. Cut off from nature and the turning of the seasons, Warlow soon begins losing his grip on sanity. Above ground, Powyss finds yet another distraction from his greenhouse in the form of Hannah, with whom he rapidly becomes obsessed. Does she return his feelings, or is she just afraid of his power over her family's lives?

Meanwhile, the servants are brewing up a rebellion inspired by recent news from across the Channel. Powyss may have set events in motion, but he is powerless to prevent their explosive and devastating conclusion.

Elegantly told and utterly transporting, The Warlow Experiment is an outstanding literary novel that announces a major new voice in British fiction.

288 pages, Hardcover

First published July 4, 2019

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About the author

Alix Nathan

10 books63 followers
Alix Nathan was born in London and educated there and at York University where she read English and Music.

She has lived in Norwich, Munich, Philadelphia, Birkenhead and now in the Welsh Marches where, with her husband, she owns some ancient woodland.

She has published three children’s books and written about Christina Rossetti and the 18th century writer and notorious beauty Mary Robinson.

Since 2006 she has been writing adult fiction and her short stories have been published in Ambit, The London Magazine, New Welsh Review and read on BBC Radio 4.

Her short story collection, His Last Fire, was published with Parthian in 2014. In 2015 Parthian published her debut novel, The Flight of Sarah Battle.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 280 reviews
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,599 reviews24.7k followers
October 25, 2019
Alix Nathan's brilliant historical novel is inspired by an actual 1797 advertisement, and set in Wales, where Herbert Powys, a well off man living on his estate with his servants, he has no family. He has a strong interest in botany, but is driven by an inner desire to make his mark in the scientific field. He hits on conducting a controversial experiment that seeks to examine the impact of complete isolation on a human being for the period of 7 years, placing an advert in search of a suitable subject willing to undergo this ordeal. Powys's experiment is to have far reaching consequences that he never envisaged and result in a tragedy that is to tear his life apart. The only applicant he gets is a desperate, impoverished, barely literate local labourer, John Warlow, with a wife, Hannah, and six children.

Powys kits out the basement in his Manor in what he perceives to be an ideal environment in his eyes, there are books, and the food provided via a dumb waiter is of gourmet quality, with Warlow expected to complete a journal. For taking part, Warlow's family will be supported by Powys, with Warlow paid £50 pounds a year. These are turbulent political times with the French Revolution and Tom Paine's Rights of Man, and Powys's household and locals have their own ideas and opinions of his experiment and Warlow's predicament, as the seeds of subversion grow. As Powys finds himself getting unexpected close to Hannah, events conspire to turn his life upside down and his experiment to fall apart with disastrous repercussions. This is an atmospheric and immersive read, of morality, ethics, love and relationships, science and an out of control experiment that is to severely impact Powys's life. This is a fantastic read, and I must mention how beautiful the hard back copy of the book is. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for ABCme.
319 reviews28 followers
May 28, 2019
This is an intriguing read, off the beaten path for sure. Going from a "reasonable human experiment" to "yep, that was to be expected". But the journey, wow!

It's 1793. Powyss, a wealthy man, wants to conduct an experiment to find out how resilient the human mind is when isolated from the world. John Warlow is the only one who volunteers, mainly because the offer of £50 a year for the rest of his life is so tempting. He agrees to live in a luxurious but dark apartment in the basement of Powyss mansion. He and his pauper family outside are very well looked after. So far so good. The book has a good pace, an interesting subject and I'm glued to my Kindle.
Pretty soon though Warlow realises he's on his own. No job, no human contact, nothing to do and his hair and nails are growing steadily. He makes up all kinds of mischief to keep himself occupied, but the first cracks are beginning to show and the mood gets darker. We follow his existance for four years, as well as life upstairs and in the regular world.

There is a good balance in darkness and light, good times and bad, and we get to know all characters indepth.
The writing is excellent, I like how language is used to show the ranks in society.
I won't spoil the ending, but as the book progresses, you'll see it coming. How it eventually plays out though is quite stunning.

The Warlow Experiment is food for thought, well crafted and highly recommended.

Thank you Netgalley and Serpent's Tail for the ARC.
Profile Image for Joseph.
465 reviews120 followers
March 19, 2021
A reward of £50 a year for life is offered to any man who will undertake to live for 7 years underground without seeing a human face: to let his toe and fingernails grow during the whole of his confinement, together with his beard. Commodious apartments are provided with cold bath, chamber organ, as many books as the occupier shall desire. Provisions will be served from Mr Powyss’s table. Every convenience desired will be provided

Herbert Powyss, Moreham House, Herefordshire, January 1793.

The premise of this novel would have been incredible, were if not for the fact that it is based on facts which actually occurred. In an Author’s note at the end of the book, Alix Nathan quotes an extract from the Annual Register for 1797 which describes the terms of the experiment more or less as reproduced in the introductory quote and adds that “it appears that an occupier offered himself for this singular residence, who is now in the fourth year of his probation, a labouring man, who has a large family, all of whom are maintained by Mr P.”

This nugget of curious information is all the more tantalizing, because there appears to be no account of the aftermath of this real-life experiment. Nathan, intrigued by the narrative opportunities of this episode, wrote two related short stories: An Experiment, Above and An Experiment, Below, reflecting, respectively, the point of view of the ‘scientist’ and ‘subject’. These stories eventually formed the basis of The Warlow Experiment, in which a wider canvas allows the author to enlarge her cast of characters and dwell longer on the historical backdrop.

We do not know the motivations of the real-life “Powyss”. Nathan’s is a recluse who prefers the company of his books and music at his residence, Moreham Hall, to the idle entertaining which seems to be expected of him. With no family, a frosty relationship with his servants and just one more-or-less like-minded friend, his only dream is of being recognized in scientific circles. This is what he sets out to do with his unique experiment. Shockingly, he does not seem to take into account the fact that, his subject being a human being, this would raise ethical issues. Powyss’ dogged determination is not tempered with enough humanity to make him realize that the consequences of his actions could be tragic. This seems to dawn on him only when he gets to know better Mrs Warlow, whom he supports during the course of the experiment. Not unexpectedly, he becomes attracted to this woman, so different from himself in class, background, education and temperament – this, ironically, makes him question the correctness of the “experiment” whilst only complicating an already explosive situation.

Nathan has drawn a compelling story out of the bare bones of the Annual Register account. The three-part narrative arc of the novel is satisfying (although some of the scenes, especially the final one, feels contrived) and I particularly admired the different voices and points of view which are very well brought out. The contrasting ‘narrators’ obviously reflect the origin of The Warlow Experiment as two short stories, but the novel also includes the voices of other characters, including Mrs Warlow. The characterization is complex – in this respect, one of the figures I liked best was the housemaid Catherine, whom we see developing from a frankly rather unpleasant young woman to a steely, determined and big-hearted figure.

The novel also works wonderfully as historical fiction. The late 18th Century was a period of philosophical and scientific inquiry but was also – possibly for the same reasons – a period of social turbulence, with revolutionary ideas sweeping across Europe. This backdrop serves to highlight the ‘social’ themes of the book.

Indeed, the experiment brings out the inherent injustices of a classist and patriarchal society. Powyss seems to expect that a ‘gentleman’ of his background would be interested in becoming a hermit for science. He does not stop to consider that the only person who might wish to give up his liberty for a ‘pension’ of fifty pounds would likely be someone more financially desperate. Despite Powyss’s attempts at being humane, the nature of the experiment itself turns Warlow into a dehumanised subject, and only serves to accentuate the divide between classes.

Moreover, it is suggested that, at all levels of society, it is women who suffer most: the educated and enlightened Powyss, his ‘progressive’ friend Fox, the firebrand Abraham Price with his dreams of equality – all become selfish and rapacious where women are concerned. At the same time, women are portrayed as the instigators of hope and redemption. In this respect, this is a worthy addition to a number of recent historical novels with a feminist streak

Visit https://endsoftheword.blogspot.com/20... for a complete review including music by composers mentioned in the novel.
Profile Image for MaryannC. Fiendish Book freak.
487 reviews108 followers
September 30, 2019
This was not a fast read by any means but a captivating one especially since this was based on a true story.
Set in 1792, Herbert Powyss is a wealthy man, a scientist of sorts who wishes to conduct his own experiment and offer labourer John Warlow the princely sum of 50 pounds a year for life if he consents to live underground in a cellar for 7 years without human contact. John is a brutish man who beats his children and has grown tired of his meek wife Hannah, so he willingly accepts the offer to live in comfort and away from his family. Little does he know that this experiment will go horribly wrong for everyone with consequences that were never imagined. There were times the story lagged for me, but the depth of the story kept me intrigued till the end. A haunting and somewhat somber read.

Profile Image for Tracey Allen at Carpe Librum.
976 reviews104 followers
August 16, 2019
The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan has the best premise I've read all year. Can a man live for 7 years underground without seeing another human face? It's 1792 and Herbert Powyss is a rich middle aged bachelor living in Moreham House in Herefordshire. Powyss enjoys reading scientific papers and cultivating rare plants and vegetables in his vast gardens and greenhouses. He is essentially a man of leisure and learning.

Seeking mention in the scientific journals he reads and the accolades he dreams will follow, he devises an experiment, converts the cellar beneath his house into a fine set of apartments and places the following advertisement.

"A reward of 50 pounds a year for life is offered to any man who will undertake to live for 7 years underground without seeing a human face: to let his fingernails grow during the whole of his confinement, together with his beard. Commodious apartments are provided with cold bath, chamber organ, as many books as the occupier shall desire. Provisions will be served from Mr Powyss's table. Every convenience desired will be provided."

To his disappointment, the advertisement attracts just one applicant. John Warlow is a rough labouring man who drinks, beats his wife Hannah and has trouble putting food on the table for his six children. He claims he won't miss seeing anybody for 7 years and is fixated on the guarantee of 50 pounds a year for life if he stays the duration of the experiment.

Warlow enters his lavishly furnished apartments in 1793 and is due to come out in the new century, 1800. Although semi-literate, Warlow is asked to write a regular journal and has ready access to as many books as he wants. There is a dumb-waiter that will provide food, wood, candles and other supplies.

Written in the third person with chapters focussing on different characters, we're given insight into Powyss, Warlow, Hannah (Warlow's wife) and several of the household servants. I definitely enjoyed Warlow's chapters the most. His thought process and experiences were transfixing and I longed to know what he was up to.

Ironically, these same thoughts quickly begin to plague Powyss as he too becomes fixated on Warlow's existence just a few floors beneath his sumptuous library. Powyss assuages his guilt by reminding himself Warlow is a willing participant and focussing on how the money from his experiment is transforming Warlow's family.

I was eager for the experiment to work and for each of the characters to 'play their role' without messing it up. Unfortunately, accomplished author Alix Nathan had other plans. Powyss's experiment doesn't quite go to plan for a variety of reasons, and it reminded me just a little of the experiment failing in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

It was exciting to learn in the Author's Note that the author had based her novel on a real advertisement she stumbled across in the Annual Register from 1789 to 1814, and specifically the volume for 1797.

Presented in a small hardback volume with a beautiful cover and stunning endpapers, I was easily transported back in time in this gothic exploration of solitude, scientific learning, mental anguish, transformation, love, penance and regret.

If you're at all intrigued by the premise, then The Warlow Experiment is for you. Highly recommended for historical fiction readers and fans of the gothic genre.

* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *
Profile Image for Aoife.
1,288 reviews546 followers
October 5, 2019
I received this book from Serpent's Tail in exchange for an honest review.

In 1793, Welshman Herbert Powyss does not want his name to fall into obscurity and decides to conduct an experiment about the effects of a seven-year solitude on a man's behavior. After constructing underground rooms, Powyss employs semi-literate John Warlow to live there. His clothes and food will be provided for him, but he won't see or speak to another person for over half a decade. Things begin to unravel as Warlow's thoughts wander in the darkness, and Powyss becomes acquainted with Warlow's wife..

This was an unsettling, yet addictive read about a man's slow descent into madness and you really do wonder what you would do in such a situation. I really enjoyed Warlow's POV which was fairly uneducaed but some of things he obsevered were realy interesting, and what he would write in his diary. There's definitely an 'ick' feeling when reading this too because it's obvious that Warlow isn't washing himself or cleaning his surroundings so it's not too long before he's wading through filth and describing all the creepy crawlies on his own body let alone in his chambers.

Powyss as a character was annoying mostly due to his selfishness and his entitled air - to the point that he didn't act entitled but he never really thought about anyone else. It is really intersting that he himself is an extremely solitary person and he decided to undertake such an experiment on someone else. I did find the relationship between Hannah and Powyss a bit predictable. I liked the POV of Catherine, one of the maids, as someone slightly impartial to everything else going on.

One of the things I wasn't mad on in this story was probably the revolutionary side plot. At the time of the novel, one of the French revolutions is ongoing and some men are beginning to think of overthrowing their masters on English soil as well. I wouldn't have a massive interest in the French Revolution - or French history in particular - so I found myself impatient in these parts to get back to Powyss and Warlow - mostly Warlow as his POV was so riveting.

The flip near the end of the book of Powyss's and Warlow's living situations really struck me and I thought it cleverly done. I did very much enjoy this book and how it all played out. I also love that Powyss and Warlow are based on real people and a real experiment, and Alix Nathan has put her own spin on it.
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,687 reviews451 followers
March 21, 2020
Herbert Powys, a wealthy man from Herefordshire, is a loner interested only in books and horticulture. In 1793 he decides he wants to make his mark on science by conducting an experiment. He advertises for a man that is willing to live in solitary confinement in Powys' nicely furnished basement. The confined man will have a good supply of books and gourmet food, but he must grow his beard and nails during his seven year confinement. Powys has only one man answer his ad--John Warlow, a semi-literate laborer with a wife and six children. In return, Warlow will receive 50 pounds yearly for life. The story has first person accounts by Powys, Warlow, Warlow's wife Hannah, and several servants.

The servants have been energized by the French Revolution and Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man," and see Warlow's confinement as an example of the upper class taking advantage of a working class man. Of course, Powys' experiment goes terribly wrong with awful repercussions for everyone involved.

Alix Nathan writes well, and has some interesting ideas. But the middle of the book explores so many of the servants' concerns that the main story sometimes seems forgotten. There's been a lot of press lately about the effect of solitary confinement on prisoners and mental health patients in our modern world, so this historical story seems very timely to read.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,051 reviews91 followers
July 17, 2019
DNF @ 27%. I thought this was right up my alley. There are many days I think I would be really happy to not see another person for seven years. But I just can't get into the story. Actually I think it's the characters that are my problem. I kept wondering if the author wanted me to like them? Or had they just been drawn unsuccessfully. I understand Warlow was supposed to be uneducated and maybe not the smartest, but he was presented as if he was some kind of caveman without the ability to form complete thoughts. I found it almost insulting to read. And Powyss, who I do think I wasn't really supposed to like, came across so juvenile that I wondered if that had been the author's intent. I thought it made his character unrelatable and unbelievable. Great concept for a book just not executed in a way I found enjoyable. My thanks go to NetGalley and the publisher for allowing me to read an advanced copy and provide my honest opinion.
Profile Image for Sarah.
600 reviews46 followers
September 15, 2019
This book was very different from what I expected. I thought it would mostly take the perspective of Warlow, in the basement, and perhaps of Powyss, the experimenter, but the perspectives expanded to that of the house-staff of Powyss, Warlow's wife, and focused on the events of the French Revolution and Enlightenment ideals. It expanded too far to these extraneous events and completely lost focus on our main interest: Warlow and the psychological effects of living in isolation for years. Overall, I felt pretty disappointed by this book.
Profile Image for Eleanor.
632 reviews178 followers
June 18, 2019
Nathan’s novel is based on a true story: in 1793, a Mr. Powyss offered £50 a year for life to any man who would undertake to live in solitary confinement underground for seven years, without cutting his nails, hair, or beard, keeping a journal of his thoughts. The advertisement was answered by one man, a labourer with a wife and a large number of children. Nathan skillfully integrates the class upheaval occurring in England at the time, and the voice of John Warlow, the semi-literate ploughman who takes up the offer, is poignantly and viscerally rendered. Out in July and not to be missed.

Originally posted on my blog, Elle Thinks.If you like what I write, why not buy me a coffee?
Profile Image for Janet.
854 reviews54 followers
September 14, 2019
As someone who cherishes my “alone time” (what reader doesn’t?), I was intrigued by the premise of this book. A wealthy gentleman in 18th century Wales offers to pay a man to live in solitude underground in his converted cellar for 7 years. This is framed as a sort of scientific experiment. The subject is to live in ease and comfort with all his needs supplied and also will have all his outside obligations taken care of. At the end of the 7 year period, he will receive a lifetime income sufficient that he won’t have to work.

I had in my mind Henry David Thoreau and Walden Pond….nothing could be further from.

Early in the book, I started to lose interest but I held on and was richly rewarded. At the end Nathan provides us with the text of the newspaper article that inspired this book....fascinating! This is really good historical fiction and a fine piece of writing. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Profile Image for Nicki Markus.
Author 63 books264 followers
February 23, 2019
The Warlow Experiment was a gripping read that really caught my attention. The premise comes from a real historical advertisement the author came across, and this is how she imagines the events would have played out. As well as being historical fiction, it is also an intensely psychological piece, looking at both the mental and physical effects of the experiment on all those connected to it. The book made me laugh at some points and had me sobbing in others. It's an emotional work on many levels. I would definitely be keen to read more from Nathan in the future as her writing blends wonderful description with a great understanding of the human psyche.

I received this book as a free eBook ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Kate.
1,626 reviews322 followers
June 26, 2019
What a gorgeous hardback this is! It's not too shabby on this inside either.... Fascinating premise and some beautiful writing. I particularly enjoyed the sections (and prose) in which we spend time with Warlow in his cellar. There is a certain inevitability about it all, which means I enjoyed the first half more than the second, but an intriguing, unusual and immersive read. Review to follow shortly on For Winter Nights.
Profile Image for Penny (Literary Hoarders).
1,143 reviews133 followers
February 6, 2020
Described by author Andrew Taylor as "both fascinating and infinitely strange", I completely agree! This was so strange, but I could not stop reading! The consequences for so many other than Warlow were significant and made for some compelling reading!

The ratings for The Warlow Experiment here on Goodreads are fairly low so I went in with low expectations, and thought it probably wouldn't work all that well for me, but it was simply not the truth. I really enjoyed this one!
Profile Image for Ilana.
604 reviews163 followers
October 5, 2019
4.5 May or may not upgrade to a 5. Definitely want to say things about this book as well as the one I just I finished previously, Recursion—both definitely among this year’s favourites, thought I cannot imagine two more different novels either!
Profile Image for Kathy.
3,342 reviews177 followers
November 11, 2019
Ill conceived "scientific" experiment in the late 1790's results in tragic consequences.

Library Loan
Profile Image for Dianah.
588 reviews48 followers
June 22, 2019
"Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true." That old adage certainly applies to Alix Nathan's terrific tale of the rampant abuses inherent in the days before ethics committees existed. Rich, intellectual, science-loving Herbert Powyss can have anything he wants, and does, but it's not enough. He devises an experiment wherein a man will live sequestered for 7 years in the cellar apartment Powyss has meticulously furnished with books, music, every comfort, and all meals provided. The only person who answers the ad is John Warlow -- a rough laborer with a wife and many children -- and so the experiment begins; or, rather, the disaster begins. Playing with themes of individuality, man's need for human interaction, culture, income inequality, empathy, and mental illness, and with nods to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jane Eyre, Kidnapped, and myriad other classics, Nathan's enjoyment of writing this book is evident on every page. Her characters are layered, her setting is rich, and her story is mesmerising; this modern classic is suspenseful, thought-provoking, and heartbreaking. She wrote her protagonist's inner life so convincingly, I mistook the author for a man. Excellently done, this kind of book doesn't come around very often -- do not miss it!
Profile Image for Bryn Greenwood.
Author 5 books3,936 followers
November 30, 2019
A very interesting book, but one that reminded me of my 3-year embargo against reading books written by men. I took that hiatus because I was tired of seeing female characters treated like cardboard cutouts, used to establish the motivation of male characters & move the plot on their behalf. The most powerful part of this story involves violence against a central female character, but it is essentially glossed over from any perspective but that of the two male characters. Although the author of this book is a woman, the female characters & their fates feel very much like plot elements, rather than real people.
Profile Image for Ellis.
1,210 reviews136 followers
October 8, 2019
Fierce and unfortunate meh vibes from this one; although it starts out strong it descends into camp and is about 40 pages too long. Would that Nathan had been able to reimagine this real-life episode without the violence committed against her female characters.
Profile Image for Chris Roberts.
Author 1 book46 followers
July 2, 2019
Human interaction is a redundancy of projected absurdity -
articulated energy ciphered lowest.

I'd stay in that basement/dungeon for a thousand years.

I am not the only person in the world,
I am the only person with the world inside of me.


Chris Roberts, God Breathtakingly
Profile Image for Annarella.
10.9k reviews104 followers
July 2, 2019
A fascinating and well written book. I loved how the story was told by different POV, the character development and the plot flow.
This is an engrossing and enthralling book.
Highly recommended!
Many thanks to the publisher for this ARC, all opinions are mine
Profile Image for Brooke,.
283 reviews19 followers
July 5, 2019
The Warlow Experiment is intriguing, odd and in some ways, a little irritating.

Intriguing - what writer or historian hasn't dreamt of that moment where you find something no one else has worked on? That bemusing advert like what led to this book - the deciphering of journals that lead to "Gentleman Jack" - the discovery of old diaries in a dumpster that leads to a memoir of an unknown individual.

Odd - the use of language seemed a strange conceit. Perhaps I've just missed the point.

Irritating - the characters, based on real people of which no real information exists (allegedly), remain as half-formed sketches of people. The characters flit through the pages but I don't feel I really engaged with any of them. There are some very big gaps in the narrative that can't be filled without the cast being more substantial. We never really learn any of the motivations for why anything is done. We know Powyss has dreams of joining a Royal Society but why does Warlow want to participate in the experiement (I know money but there has to be more than that). Why is Jenkins antagonistic? Why does Catherine make the choices she does? How does Powyss survive? Why is Tom Paine mentioned so often and held up by some of the characters as vitally important when only fleeting attention is given to his social position. What war are they talking about? I know but I'm a student of history. Will other know?

Overall, I did enjoy the story and I think it was well written but I honestly feel that there remains a massive scope for this story to be developed further. I also acknowledge that Nathan may have avoided filling the gaps so as to keep the focus on her main protagonists but ultimately, the details left out are the ones that would have really grounded it and made it feel like a complete work rather than a series of sketches and notes.
Profile Image for Victoria (Eve's Alexandria).
664 reviews384 followers
Shelved as 'not-finished'
June 29, 2019
This was a DNF for me, which is a shame because I’m seeing some great reviews of it. It suffered from being read a) on my Kindle and b) as a terribly formatted Netgalley file. But whether I’d have enjoyed it more otherwise is questionable. I found it quite flat and dull, insipidly peopled, with very little to exercise my mind over. I think this is probably a case of book-reader mismatch though because, as I say, excellent people have liked it a lot.
Profile Image for Cathy.
1,179 reviews215 followers
May 12, 2023
Amazingly, the story at the heart of The Warlow Experiment is rooted in historical fact. A Mr Powyss of Moreham in Lancashire really did publish an advertisement offering a reward of £50 a year for life to any man willing to live for seven years underground without seeing another human face. And, as in the novel, the successful applicant was required to “let his toe and fingernails grow during the whole of his confinement, together with his beard”.

John Warlow is a complex character. He is a violent man who physically assaults his wife, Hannah. As a farm labourer living close to poverty the idea of earning £50 a year for life is something like a dream and it is his sole motivation for undertaking the assignment. A man of little imagination, he has no conception of the toll the experiment will take on his physical and mental health.

The social gulf between Warlow and Powyss is illustrated in the accommodation Powyss has prepared for Warlow in the cellar of Moreham House. It’s filled with books but Warlow is barely literate, struggling to make sense of a few pages of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, another individual enduring isolation. But there’s no Man Friday to act as a companion to Warlow, unless you count a frog that manages to enter the cellar or, latterly, a cat. Warlow’s accommodation has a bath but he never uses it and he is puzzled by the frequency of the delivery of clean linen. His meals (a replica of what is being served to Powyss) are lowered to him in a dumb waiter but are rarely to his liking. He’s happy with the beer and tobacco, though. Ridiculously, Warlow’s rooms are also furnished with a chamber-organ, Powyss’s thought being, one supposes, that Warlow can while away the time learning to play it – when he’s not reading Voltaire that is.

One of Powyss’s requirements is that Warlow keep a daily journal, expecting it to contain insights into Warlow’s experiences that can be used in the scientific paper he intends to write. The entries Warlow manages, before he gives up keeping it altogether, are brief and definitely not full of insight.

Warlow’s descent into madness is disturbing to witness but unsurprising. He quickly loses track of time. Unable to tell night from day, his only clue is the meals delivered to him. His discovery that Powyss has installed a listening device only increases his sense of paranoia. Ironically, Powyss becomes increasingly disturbed by the noises he hears, contributing to his growing doubts about the morality of his experiment.

I mentioned earlier the gulf between Warlow and Powyss but, in fact, there are similarities. Powyss’s life is one of solitude, albeit luxurious solitude. He appears emotionally repressed, welcoming no visitors to Moreham House. He has little social contact aside from his servants, the exception being occasional visits to a London brothel. He is an obsessive collector of plants and spends much of the day in his study immersed in his books or dreaming of the fame his experiment will attract. Like Warlow, he appears to have no conception of the impact the requirements of his experiment will have on his subject.

No record exists of the outcome of the real life experiment so this element of the book is entirely the product of the author’s imagination. The concept that actions have consequences is dramatically played out as Powyss becomes infatuated with Warlow’s wife, with disastrous consequences. Mayhem, melodrama and murder follow against the backdrop of an age of popular revolution as parts of the citizenry, including some within Powyss’s household, rise up in pursuit of the same rights as their counterparts in France.

I thought Mark Meadow’s narration was absolutely superb. He created distinctive voices for each of the many characters – both male and female – so I was never confused about who was speaking. His voicing of Warlow was particularly memorable, especially during Warlow’s periods of madness, really bringing to life the author’s evocative writing.

The Warlow Experiment explores many issues – social, economic, scientific, psychological – as well as being a really engrossing story. And in case you thought experiments in social isolation were a thing of the past, a Spanish extreme athlete recently spent 500 days in a cave with no human contact in pursuit of a world record.
Profile Image for M Carmichael.
99 reviews9 followers
April 20, 2022
I had this book on my “to read” shelf since 2019, ever since reading a review detailing how this novel was based on a curious real-life incident: paying a man to live in isolation for years in your basement as an “experiment”. It was a little hard to time travel with this book to the late 1790s, Great Britain. The life of a very rich, idle bachelor was hard to relate. However, the intriguing premise pulls the reader into the suffocating drama, quite appropriate for our sequestered/quarantined COVID times. The ensuing sad narrative reminded me a bit of Brontë’s gothic ‘Jane Eyre’, …what with the broody protagonist, Powyss, standing in for Rochester, and the central medieval estate Moreham, echoing Eyre’s Thornfield Hall. The main conflict reminds of that other gothic novel…’Frankenstein’; rich man dabbles in science, creates a monster that may destroy him (don’t want to give too much away). The author clearly has weighty things in mind, commenting on class struggles, mental health, patriarchal societies impacting women in disastrous ways, nature vs. nurture, etc.
A small quibble, I found some of the ribald middle parts unexpected and off putting, but we Americans are known to be prudish. Still a very good book, that will make you think on the author’s themes long after finishing.
Profile Image for Nathaniel.
Author 21 books115 followers
May 2, 2022
I don't like shelving this as a historical fiction, but everyone else is so I feel that I should...yet I'm also placing it under horror and it's not exactly horror. This is a genre all on its own and I hate it. The concept was really cool. When I saw it on sale at the bookstore, I knew instantly that I wanted to read it. I enjoyed portions of it because the concept was legitimately really good and I thoroughly enjoyed the experiment side of things. The rest of it was just...not good. It was honestly SO BAD that I don't know how this book is even published. This would've made a really cool novella if it had just focused on the experiment.
Oh well...it was short, entertaining, and forgettable.
Profile Image for Anna.
159 reviews27 followers
June 25, 2020
4.5 stars, an unsettling and often suffocating frankensteinian read, quite fit for the current quarantined times
Profile Image for Daren Kearl.
584 reviews5 followers
July 16, 2019
I was initially drawn to this novel because of the premise - a labourer is paid to live alone, under ground but with a furnished apartment and entertainments such as books and an organ, for seven years as part of an experiment. The author was also drawn to this, as it turns out that this is based on a true account from 1797.
Set in a time of unrest and revolution - the French Revolution and Tom Paine's The Rights of Man are often mentioned - the novel examines the hold that rich had over poor and men over women.
The dialogue felt realistic to me and the characters were well drawn. The plot challenged my middle class idealistic preconceptions as I came to understand the false prerogative that indicates that the educated and better off know what is best for the less fortunate as long as it fits to their agenda.
Profile Image for John Banks.
133 reviews49 followers
June 19, 2020
Alix Nathan’s The Warlow Experiment is a beautifully written, wonderful work of historical fiction. Set in 1793 Wales, a well-off gentleman with a keen interest in scientific and botanic pursuits, Herbert Powyss, decides upon an experiment that he hopes will win him fame with the Royal Society in London. This experiment involves placing a person in the three-rooms of his estate’s cellar without human company or interaction for seven years. Powyss wants to record and understand the impact of such social isolation. The individual will be well-fed and the rooms fitted out with comfortable furniture, books, paintings and even a chamber organ. If the occupant can last out the seven years they will then be awarded fifty pounds per annum, for life. A poor married labourer with six children, John Warlow, takes up the offer and enters the cellar.

The book focuses on the impact this experiment has not just on Warlow and Powyss, but also on other servants of the household and Warlow’s wife,Hannah, with whom Powyss becomes infatuated. A particular strength is how through a quite virtuoso free indirect style the various characters provide different insights and perspectives on the events with their quite distinctive voices. John Warlow’s strange and unsettling voice as it unravels through the novel disrupts the emerging historical consciousness of the age of scientific reason, providing glimpses of its dark and unruly, even sinister, underbelly. A brief example from his early days in the cellar: ‘Warm. Bed is soft and warm. No crackling straw in the mattress, no sacking. No twigs sticking into your back. He’s never slept in a bed like this. He squirms his body down into it. Head sinks into feathers. Down into down. He could stay in it forever. Could stay in it all day. Is it day? Clock strikes. Again he forgets to count. Utter darkness. Blinks. Black. Blinks. Still black.’ This is just one brief extract of how the historical detail is filtered through the characters’ consciousness. Many such passages are exquisitely written.

Rumination on themes of class,including in the light of Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, is weaved through the novel and remains carefully grounded in the characters rather than as an abstract concern. The gender implications of these new political movements are considered through the character of Catherine , a maid working for Powys’s, and for me she becomes a wonderfully drawn character as the book concludes.

The voices that provide this account of the misguided experiment provide historical insight about the emerging values and consciousness of the late eighteenth century. A richly rewarding read.
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