The Warlow Experiment

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 03 Jul 2019

Member Reviews

An interesting concept for a story, and I enjoyed the historical element and multiple narrators, but it just didn't quite work for me in comparison to other books I've read with a similar historical setting.
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I requested this book originally because the setting was the Welsh Marches which I know.

The author based this book on a document she found . She then explores the experiment she discovered. Herbert Powyss considers himself to be a man of the Enlightenment. He is rich and chiefly interested in horticulture. He devises an experiment in which a volunteer is to live underground with no human contact for 7 years. The volunteer will be paid handsomely and be provided with clothes, food and drink , materials to keep warm and books.
Step forward the impoverished worker John Warlow who beats his wife and presents as an unsympathetic character.

The experiment has as a background the Enlightenment but also the French Revolution. Several minor characters are politically active and see John as a prisoner.

Herbert then "complicates" the experiment by starting a relationship with Hannah, Warlow's wife.

Things come to a crisis point and everyone's life unravells.

Like Frankenstein, the responsibilities of the scientist and the ethics of scientific experiment come to the fore. Other themes are freedom and what it means to be human.

I liked the way the plot gets turned on its head and roles are reversed in some ways. Although Warlow is a despicable man capable of rape and domestic violence, the author manages to make you pity him in some ways. He has the complexity of Shakespeare's Caliban in The Tempest and in many ways Herbert mirrors Prospero.   I ended up with mixed feelings towards both of the main characters.

Minor characters are well drawn and drive the plot forward.

I thought this was an unusual and thought provoking book with modern resonances - Love Island, Big Brother in which we witness "volunteers" in "scientific" experiments.

I am grateful to netgalley for my ARC
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The Warlow Experiment is a very gripping novel about scientific trials, love and vengeance. Set in a rural area of England in the late eighteenth century it tells the story of an experiment out of control and its implications on a variety of people. 
I enjoyed reading about the historical context, the psychological development of all people involved and found it a brilliant study of humans and their motivations.
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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. 
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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, woman 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
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Author: Alix Nathan

Genre: Historical fiction 

Publisher: Serpents Tail

Release Date: Out Now!!

Rating: 3/5 stars ✨ 

**I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks goes out to the author and publicity team for the copy and this in no way affects my opinion of the book**

The Warlow Experiment is the debut novel from upcoming British author, Alix Nathan. The book is set in 1792 and follows the tale of Herbert and John as they forge an alliance to help bring Herbert to scientific fame. John becomes his test subject for a bizarre and interesting experiment that could thrust Herbert to fame and fortune. Of course, all goes rapidly wrong and Herbert is left drastically out of his depth and unable to stop the cogs he's put into motion. It's a most surreal and dark story, that's both gripping and atmospheric. A perfect gothic style read that would delight fans of the Victorian gothic and Laura Purcell. 

I really enjoyed this book. Alix Nathan has a talent with words and the book was a pure joy to read through. I'm a sucker for the Victorian gothic and anything resembling it in modern literature and this definitely ticks that box. Whilst not being a veritable jaw dropper, it is certainly a great tale and one I'd definitely recommend to fellow lovers of dark and moody reads reminiscent of the Victorian gothic classics. (I think I've said Victorian gothic too much, my apologies!)
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'Some time ago, a Mr Powyss, of Moreham near Prefton, offered by public advertisement, a reward of fifty pounds for life, to any man who would undertake to live for seven years under ground, without seeing a human face; and to let his toe and finger nails grow during the whole of his confinement, together with his beard. Commodious apartments were provided under ground, with a cold bath, a chamber-organ, as many books as the occupier should desire, and provisions were to be served from Mr P's table; on ringing a bell the recluse was also to be provided with every convenience desired. It appears that an occupier offered himself for this singular residence, who is now in the fourth year of his probation, a laboring man, who has a large family, all of whom are maintained by Mr P.' 
- Annual Register, Chronicle, 1797 volume.

Based on a true story found by the author, the novel contains a magical ironic factor as it depicts the suggestion of a sole life without human contact yet is written in the third person and split into various perspectives. These perspectives span different lives and how they interact - the upper classes and their letter correspondences, the employer - employee relationships, male and female interactions, as well as how the upper classes interact and feel power over the lower classes in general. The power dynamics in these relationships are diminished by the multiple perspectives shown within the novel, as there is no significant weighting given to a particular character. 
The novel highlights Powyss' own need for external stimulation through social interaction, despite his previous life as a social recluse, to some extent. The realization of Powyss need for social interaction is only discovered through the confinement of John Warlow. Warlow seems to swap places with Powyss, becoming the social recluse whilst Powyss inhabits important aspects of Warlow's own life - in particular, taking responsibility for Warlow's family in various ways. 
The novel is an effective, and exaggerative, exploration of social identity through the mode of inter-personal interaction.
I received a free review copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest unedited feedback - thank you Serpent's Tail!
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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.
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Somerset, 1793. Imagine reading an advert to recruit a person that will spend the next seven years in solitary confinement, in relative luxury with the person’s family provided for and after the conclusion of this “social experiment”, this person will receive a lifetime payment of £50 per annum.
John Warlow, a farm labourer, is the only applicant to William Powyss’s advert.
This is a very different and fascinating upstairs/downstairs story. Warlow is settled into a well-appointed suite of rooms within the deep foundations of Moreham House with his umbilical cord to the outside world being a lift shaft by which supplies get delivered and waste removed. For company he has only books, a church organ, some pictures and a journal in which he struggles to write.
At the same time, there are demonstrations in London, revolt is in the air. The King has been threatened. Will this atmosphere if unrest spread to Moreham House? Are the seeds of resistance against the current order already germinating readily in Powyss’s perfectly tended greenhouses? Will a barely literate, wild-tempered labourer and his insignificant wife upend the carefully kept equilibrium of Moreham House?
Ethic and moral struggles, conventions and inner turmoil are cleverly contrasted in those two separate worlds of haves and have-nots.
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Who hasn't occasionally wanted to get away from the world and everyone for a while?  I know I have at times. In 1793 Labourer John Warlow is the only person to answer an advertisement for someone to take part in an experiment involving living underground with no human company or daylight for 7 years.  The participant will live in comfort with good food, luxurious furnishings and there will be books and music to amuse oneself.  On completion of the experiment £50 will be paid to the successful party each year for the rest of their life.

Herbert Powyss is the man looking for a person willing to take part in his experiment. A keen horticulturalist, and would-be scientist, Powyss prefers the company of his plants and seeds to that of fellow humans. Townsfolk think him an odd fellow for his reclusive nature, though they benefit from regular baskets of exotic produce from the gardens and glasshouses of Moreham House. 

So John Warlow leaves his wife and children and is taken to the rooms below Powyss' main house, which have been fitted out especially for the purpose of the experiment.  There he will have everything he needs to live comfortably for 7 years.  Everything except daylight and human company.  The door is locked and boards nailed across it. The experiment begins.  

Naturally things don't go according to plan for Powyss or Warlow, but I am not going to spoil what happens here. This is a very engrossing story that has some extremely dark moments but also some light points too.  I loved the parts with the servants, which are like a soap opera at times with all their gossipy shenanigans. I laughed and I cried reading this book.  It is beautifully written and the characters are so real.  This is most definitely one of my favourite novels of this year.
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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 others 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.
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Good characters, gripping premise, page-turning handling of the plot. Enough history to give it solid context without being overbearing - Nathan kept it about the story. Some of the turns of plot - two coincidences of events at exactly the right moment - seemed too convenient to be believed even within the story, but I still read it quickly because I was interested and wanted to know what happened next. This will appeal to my shop's readers and I'm glad I read it.
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On this occasion I see very little point in playing my cards close to my chest, because I am about to gush repeatedly and quite possible extensively about how much I found to admire and love in the pages of The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan 
This book quite simply took my breath away.
And not because only because as a chronic claustrophobe, I had to read with a curious sense of detachment. It took by breath away as this novel has so much to offer and so much to say.
Throughout my reading I made copious notes, as this beautifully plotted and many layered novel slowly revealed itself. I made so many notes that in truth I am not quite sure where to start.
Part of me wants to mull things over a bit more; this is a book that leaves you pondering and reflecting after each sitting. I guarantee these characters will dance through your dreams and whisper to you while you go about your day.
But another part of me is desperate to review this while it's all still fresh in my brain. And I feel strongly that this novel deserves a publication day review.
So am starting in the obvious place, at the beginning.
Not just the beginning of the novel but right at the novel's conception, the point where Alix Nathan found inspiration for this incredible story.

It surely must be an author's dream to stumble across something as tantalising as a genuine late 1700's advert searching for a person willingly to spend seven years underground and entirely alone all in the name of science.It is a gift of a starting point, and from it Alix Nathan has created a gift of a novel.
And so we come to our story. Enter Powyss. An amateur botanist, wealthy and living with limited social contact. Considering himself a man of science, tired of simple experiments surrounding his plants, he conceives a scheme to raise his standing in scientific circles.
He advertises for a man to lived beneath his house in specially designed apartments. Filled with books and furnished in style the only thing the chosen subject will want for is human contact. For seven long years.
One man comes forward. Warlow, a local labourer, a married man with minimal education and a growing family. His labours will earn him £50 a year for life and his wife and children will be well cared for during his time away.
The novel begins as Warlow enters the apartments. At this point it is not necessarily the confinement that is the cause of his immediate discomfort but rather the palatial surroundings he finds himself in. Everything that Powyss has seen as essential to Human enjoyment and sustenance, books, fine china and linen, even an organ is entirely alien to Warlow.
From the beginning obvious tensions and paradoxes are apparent. Powyss sees himself as educated, even worldly and yet his actions and reactions particularly to Warlow underline his naivety and social arrogance.
Powyss does not understand the working man, he does not understand how his estate runs, how the people he employs think and feel.
Choosing to dismiss his acquaintance Fox's lyrical letters highlighting social unrest, beginning with the French Revolution and spilling across the Channel in the form of workers uprisings, Powyss see the wider world as irrelevant to him. Powyss pointedly ignores his gift of Paine's 'Rights of Man', leaving it's pages uncut, whilst key members of his staff are lapping up it's teachings.
In fact, far from isolating himself from what is happening in the wider world, Powyss is replicating a societal microcosm in his own home. What could be more pertinent to the 'Rights of Man' than choice, education and freedoms? At so many points the novel is an astute exploration of the nature and notion of universal suffrage.
For quite unwittingly Powyss has created a world where perceived order and hierarchies are being subverted. Power shifts as Powyss comes to understand the implications of what he has done. How easy will it be to release this man after such a period? After years of repression, confinement and potential suffering, what kind of retribution will Powyss face. Once again we staring down a metaphor for a wider socio-economic situation.
Or course it is of no surprise that the experiment fosters danger. But does this danger come from the expected quarters ?
The experiment brings change, upsets balance and careful order. It doesn't just change Warlow but everyone who comes into contact with it.
And of those affected who, poses the greater risk to wider stability.
Is it Warlow? Living isolated and becoming more disassociated from the world and his own self, beginning to understand, even fleetingly, just how important even small freedoms can be.
Or does risk lie in Powyss' own shifting priorities? For a man who seems to revel in his self perceived solitude, the experiment is bringing dramatic changes to his social circle. Warlow's wife Hannah is strangely beguiling. What effect will her presence bring to the situation?
And we shouldn't underestimated Abraham Price and his sweetheart Catherine, master gardener and housemaid, two of Powyss' overlooked staff. Both are dissatisfied, both drawn to political developments, but who will take their frustrations to the next level?
The experiment is ill conceived of that it there is no doubt, both subject and creator end up trapped and changed by their experience.
Alix Nathan has created a masterpiece. And I don't say this lightly. There are so many layers within this novel. So many recurring themes, strands that weave beautifully together.
Clearly this is a meditation on what if costs to live both within the world and the effects of being removed from it. But it's also offers valuable comment on such themes a religion, personal and political power, rights of women and suppression of humanity. It is a novel with a social conscience, a love story and on many levels a tale of horror.
My review is, I hope, heartfelt but is actually a mere skim across the surface of this incredible tale. One blog review will not unlock the wonder of this novel, but I hope it persuades you to turn the first page.
From there you are lost...
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My thanks to Serpent’s Tail for an eARC via NetGalley of Alix Nathan’s ‘The Warlow Experiment’ in exchange for an honest review.

In 1793 reclusive Herbert Powyss has aspirations of being recognised as a scientist by The Royal Society and decides that he wants to study the long term effects of solitude on another human being. Powyss is a big fan of Robinson Crusoe: “the supreme solitary. The book had haunted him all his life. How could such resilience be tested?”

So he fits out his three room basement and places an advertisement offering £50 a year for life for someone who will agree to spend 7 years in the basement with no contact with any human. The only respondent is John Marlow, a semi-literate local farm labourer with a wife and six children. John is a man of the land and being cut off from nature and the turn of the seasons soon begins to take its toll.

This fascinating work of historical fiction was inspired by an entry that the author came across in the Annual Register of 1797 that noted that a gentleman had undertaken the experiment as detailed in the novel and that it had been ongoing for the past four years. However, Nathan couldn’t find any further details and so wrote two short stories that were later expanded to create this novel as a fictional reimagining of the event.

It is quite a stark work and alongside the principle tale of the experiment it explores the rise of tensions between the working class and the landowners that had erupted in France as revolution a few years previously. The characterisations throughout are strong. Although Powyss and Marlow were both quite unsympathetic, the supporting character of housemaid Catherine Croft shined from her first appearance.

It proved a very unusual, multi-layered novel rich in period detail. I found it thought-provoking in terms of its psychological and socio-economic themes.

While my eARC was plain as digital editions usually are the photos that I have seen of the final printed edition show it to be quite stunning in terms of its binding and endpapers.
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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
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If I hadn't know from the blurb that this fictional plot is based on a real advertisement at the end of C18, I'd have thought it was pure fantasy!

"The Warlow Experiment" is set during the European Enlightenment. The experiment was conceived and then carried out by a reclusive, rural land-owner living in the depths of The Marches, someone who did not socialise, nor indeed have any contact with fellow "thinkers" of the Enlightenment, other than an occasional letter to or from an old school acquaintance for whom he never much cared. In fact, the only person he does care for is himself, and he wanted to be recognised as one of the new scientists of the times. This yearning for personal aggrandisement and publicity, coupled with total selfishness and lack of empathy is nothing new; Herbert Powyss types have existed throughout history into the present age.

In short, the experiment involves Warlow's voluntary solitary incarceration for seven years (by Powyss) in relative comfort.

By the dramatic end of the novel, which is very difficult to put down, the reader can see distinct parallels between the effects of self-imposed physical isolation and of self-imposed emotional isolation and the destructive impact of both.

Both an analogy of, and an object lesson for our times.
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I have a special fondness for books about science and scientists before the term ‘scientist’ was coined in the 19th century. People interested in natural philosophy tended to conduct all sorts of weird, wonderful and sometimes ill-advised experiments and pursue various areas of study as opposed to only focusing on one like biology or chemistry. In The Warlow Experiment, Herbert Powyss, a gentleman of leisure, keen gardener and botanist comes up with this experiment of observing the effects of solitude on a man, thinking it would make a good paper for The Royal Society. So he sets up some rooms in the basement of his mansion with bookcases, an organ and all the mod cons 1792 can offer and advertises for a suitable subject. John Warlow, a barely literate Welsh farmer with a wife and 6 children to feed is the sole respondent, he will spend 7 years living in Powyss’s basement without seeing natural light or having any human contact. What could possibly go wrong?

With time, Powyss slowly loses interest in the experiment as his obsession with Hannah, Warlow’s wife grows. Warlow, with nothing to do, slowly loses his mind. Meanwhile, unrest is brewing among some of Powyss’s servants, buoyed by the French Revolution and writings of Thomas Paine.    

I really enjoyed The Warlow Experiment. It’s well written and the characters well developed.  Alix Nathan based the novel on a true story, there was an advertisement by a Herbert Powyss seeking a willing test subject. She wrote two short stories, one from Powys’s and one from Warlow’s points of view before turning the stories into a novel. The narrative moves between the two and also takes in some of the side characters, Warlow’s wife, Powyss’s servants and Dr Fox, his schoolfriend and only correspondent. The setting, tail end of Enlightenment is well done too, there is just enough history for context but it never overwhelms the narrative. 

In some ways, The Warlow Experiment reminded me of Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which I also really liked. Although the books are very different, they both highlight social and political concerns of the 18th century. The Warlow Experiment is much more about human psyche and the effects of Powyss’s experiment on everyone around him. 

One of the best historical fiction novels I’ve read in a while and definitely an author to watch. 

My thanks to Netgalley and Serpent’s Tail for the opportunity to read and review The Warlow Experiment.
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‘…a reward of 50 pounds for life, to any man who would undertake to live for seven years underground…’

The Warlow Experiment is a fictional story based from a true article published in the 1793 which makes for a great premise. The idea of an author taking that true snippet of information and crafting a world and characters around it to fill in the blanks is really interesting and really drew me in. Unfortunately for me, that was where my interest ended I’m afraid. As mentioned by the author in the afterword this novella started out as a short story and then got padded out to be a short novel – around 200 pages. I really feel that it should have stayed as a short story and it that would have been a lot more interesting I’m afraid. A lot of the chapters felt like filler and it would have been easy to half the number of pages and it would not have made any difference to the plot.

From the blurb I was kind of expecting a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ or ‘Dorian Gray’ style slip into madness from Warlow – something psychologically interesting and perhaps drawing the reader into the madness with him. Warlow however is a difficult character to sympathise with - his writing style is mainly written in short sentences and purposeful bad grammar which makes for hard reading. The character of Mr Powyss isn’t much better either and I would go so far as to say that he is truly unlikeable. In fact, there is no character in the story to sympathise or relate to which makes for a slow and tiresome read. There is a lot of the book which includes base thinking towards women which I didn’t particularly enjoy, there’s an element of politics and class themes brought in as well but without much context so a lot of it was hard to follow. The psychological aspects of the initial experiment which I was most excited to read are not brought to the forefront enough which is a huge shame. In the end I felt like the core plot could have been so much more interesting but everything around it got in the way.

Overall I believe the Warlow Experiment would have fared a lot better as a short story – the filling put in as an attempt to make it a longer novel just does not work on this occasion. Thank you to NetGalley & Serpent’s Tail/Profile Books for a copy of the ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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A very interesting concept to explore how human mind reacts to absolute isolation and loneliness. It's very dark at times, but fascinating. 
The book could be shorter in my opinion, but overall, good writing, interesting concept and good execution. 
Thanks a lot to Netgalley and the publisher for this copy in exchange for an honest review.
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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.
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