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The Warlow Experiment: A Novel by Alix…

The Warlow Experiment: A Novel (edition 2019)

by Alix Nathan (Author)

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785244,086 (3.47)8
An utterly transporting and original historical novel about an eighteenth-century experiment in personal isolation that yields unexpected--and deeply, shatteringly human--results. "The best kind of historical fiction. Alix Nathan is an original, with a virtuoso touch." --Hilary Mantel     Herbert Powyss lives in an estate in the Welsh Marches, with enough time and income to pursue a gentleman's fashionable investigations and experiments in botany. But he longs to make his mark in the field of science--something consequential enough to present to the Royal Society in London. He hits on a radical experiment in isolation: For seven years a subject will inhabit three rooms in the basement of the manor house, fitted out with rugs, books, paintings, and even a chamber organ. Meals will arrive thrice daily via a dumbwaiter. The solitude will be totally unrelieved by any social contact whatsoever; the subject will keep a diary of his daily thoughts and actions. The pay: fifty pounds per annum, for life.     Only one man is desperate to apply for the job: John Warlow, a semi-literate laborer with a wife and six children to provide for. The experiment, a classic Enlightenment exercise gone more than a little mad, will have unforeseen consequences for all included.… (more)
Title:The Warlow Experiment: A Novel
Authors:Alix Nathan (Author)
Info:Doubleday (2019), 272 pages
Collections:Loaned from Library

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The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan



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Despair and poverty allows an uneducated man to become part of an experiment where he is isolated and deprived of human contact for seven years. If he succeeds, he will receive a stipend of fifty pounds per year for the rest of his life. An interesting look at how education or the lack thereof can impact human behavior and feelings. ( )
  bemislibrary | Feb 7, 2020 |
The whole story is a bit of a trainwreck from start to finish and not the most cheerful of novels. There is so much occurring within the novel – a failed experiment, a doomed relationship, class uprisings, mental health issues, explorations of guilt, love, and ignorance – but the author does a poor job of blending all of the issues, so it feels very disjointed. The choice of coarse language used by the protagonist left me scratching my head because it does not fit his personality, which is fastidious and extreme in its gentlemanly presentation. This was one novel I was very glad to finish and not because it was good.
  jmchshannon | Dec 28, 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 * ( )
1 vote Carpe_Librum | Aug 16, 2019 |
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.
Read more of my book reviews at http://www.sandradanby.com/book-reviews-a-z/ ( )
  Sandradan1 | Aug 8, 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. ( )
1 vote Kathl33n | Jul 16, 2019 |
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