Serpent’s Tail | 2019 (4 July) | 278p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1793 and Herbert Powyss, living on a small estate in the Welsh Marches, is an enlightened man. He reads the latest scientific and philosophical texts. He exchanges letters with some of the finest minds of the day. Yet his life is mostly one of seclusion and solitude. But Powyss is a man who wants to leave his mark. What he really wants, though, is to impress London’s Royal Society. To do that Powyss comes up with a radical experiment. He will pay a man fifty pounds a year for the rest of his life if he will spend seven years in perfect isolation in the cellar of his manor. He wants to test the limits of the human mind, its appetite for fulfilment and improvement when it is deprived of human society.
Perhaps not surprisingly there isn’t a rush to answer Powyss’ advertisement. Only one man replies – John Warlow, a semi-illiterate brutish labourer with a wife and six living children (six other children died). What need has Warlow of the fine books, the organ and music, the journals to record his enlightenment through the seven long years? Powyss is about to discover the fine line between enlightenment and madness.
The Warlow Experiment is a beautiful book in so many ways. The cover and the inside cover are stunning with their images of flowers, insects and fruits – the rewards of life. Inside there are wonders to be found. Alix Nathan’s prose is captivating. It captures the Enlightenment scientists’ hunger for knowledge as Powyss spends time examining the world around him and questioning it. But these chapters, full of analysis, detailed description, curiosity and awe, alternate with those that take us into the dark cellar where John Warlow festers. In these chapters, the language falters. Warlow has no education. In utter boredom he tries to grapple with the books and journal but it can’t make up for the companionship he misses and seeks now where he can find it – with the frogs that drop in through the cistern.
This is a captivating, fascinating novel. It takes us back to the time of the French Revolution, a time in which ideas have become dangerous and forbidden. The ideas of the revolution have stretched across the Channel to England. Powyss feels fear. But his feelings are far more complicated than that and much of that is to do with Warlow. Powyss is about to learn far more about himself than he ever imagined.
There is an inevitability about The Warlow Experiment that, for me, meant that the first half was more successful than the first but I really enjoyed this novel. I loved its language, its portrayal of a time of scientific enquiry contrasting with the reality of the poverty faced by most of the population. This is a time ripe for revolution. Science is teetering on a knife edge as necessity and hunger rise up in desperation. But it’s not as simple as that, as the character of Warlow demonstrates so brutally. The Warlow Experiment immediately appeals to the reader with its beautiful cover and inside cover. It invites the reader in. And what they find there will not disappoint.