It is 1793 in Alix Nathan’s The Warlow Experiment, and Herbert Powyss, an eccentric gentleman scientist, comes up with a plan to make his name. He will conduct an experiment about the effects of isolation on a man’s body and soul. He finds a local man — the boozy, thuggish John Warlow — willing to accept £50 a year for life in return for living in isolated ease down in Powyss’s cellar for seven years... Meanwhile, the house’s servants are becoming increasingly infected with the revolutionary mood of the times — some of the servants believe the experiment is cruel. Powyss is undeterred and clings to his dogmatic Enlightenment faith in rationalism. This original and gripping debut builds to a satisfying and fittingly macabre climax.
Surrounded by luxury, from his well-stocked library to the exotic plants and “newfangled” fruits he cultivates, Powyss dreams of making his mark as a man of science. On this point one can’t fault Nathan’s research; Powyss’ world is richly and memorably drawn.
In a novel premised on stagnation, the incremental but inevitable deterioration of both major characters becomes an unexpectedly gripping drama, fueled by the attraction of repulsion. Powyss can’t resist an affair with Warlow’s wife, who visits his house weekly for her money. Simultaneously, Warlow’s mind gradually “grinds down like a windless mill with no corn.” Annoyed by its ticking, he smashes his clock. Eventually, he destroys the furniture, books and organ. After four years, Powyss recognizes that his experiment has failed... At last, the novel veers into pure gothic horror, and Nathan’s writing, having lost its subtle ironic edge, barely skirts histrionics. With its echoes of “Frankenstein” and Michael Myers, plus a quote from Psalm 130 and a meteor in the sky, the final scene piles it on. Surprisingly, though, such lapses fail to spoil this unique and chilling novel.
It is 1793 and, alongside scientific discoveries, political unrest is brewing. As Warlow descends into squalor and breakdown, Powys finds himself assaulted by many unexpected emotions, not least by late-in-life lust. Has he gone too far to retrieve a man’s humanity?
Original and beautifully written, this is a meaty, gripping novel of obsession gone sour.
In incubating her twin stories to a full-length novel she has changed remarkably little of her original detail: a number of scenes survive almost unaltered. The sense that Nathan evokes so skilfully in her short fiction, that her stories are mere glimpses of a complex and fully realised world, is plainly a matter of fact.
The larger canvas of a novel allows her to create a household for Powyss, to give voices and subplots to the servants required to serve his experiment, and to root the undertaking more firmly in its politically febrile times... Unfortunately these, like too much of the new material, weigh the novel down. While Nathan’s stories glitter, dangerous with hidden depth, the book plods, its plot fatally underpowered. It takes too long for the effects of Warlow’s incarceration to gain momentum and, when at last the household cracks under its pressure, the events feel forced and improbable.
Nathan’s novel has something of the fable about it, and its unadorned prose aids the narrative drive so essential to this form. It also repeatedly and convincingly reflects the vernacular of many of the most important characters, including Warlow himself. Boldly the author refrains from continuous presentation of Warlow in confinement, meaning that readers can share the shock felt by others in the story at what has gone on in the cellars.
Shut-in on himself by lack of empathy with those around him, the man of reason is shown to have destructive affinities with the locked-in occupant of his cellar. Converging disastrously, both are casualties of self-containment. Preventing things from seeming over-schematic, rich period detail and grippingly peopled subplots about the era’s radical insurgency and reactionary repression add engrossing depth to this compelling tale of a ruinously backfiring experiment.
This gripping historical novel is based on the true story of an 18th-century eccentric landowner on the Welsh borders, who offered someone £50 a year for seven years to live in his cellar, so he could observe the effects of solitary confinement. Nathan is a little-known author who turned to writing later on in life — and now counts Hilary Mantel as a fan.