Herbert Powyss is a man of the Enlightenment, devoting his time to the study of horticulture, science and philosophy at his home in the Welsh Marches. He is open-minded, rejecting religion and social conventions, but with little interest in politics. He enjoys solitude but he dreams of earning the admiration of his peers by presenting a paper to the Royal Society.
He devises an experiment. He advertises for a man to spend seven years alone, completely isolated, in rooms he has constructed for the purpose in the cellar of his own house. The man will be generously rewarded, receiving an income for life. Only one man comes forward, John Warlow, a farm labourer with a wife and six children.
From the start their mutual incomprehension is apparent. Powyss provides the kind of accommodation he would like – books, chamber organ and paper for writing. He thinks that the barely literate Warlow will be amused by Voltaire and entranced by Robinson Crusoe. When he suggests that Warlow might sing to himself, Warlow imagines the scorn of his drinking companions, apparently failing to understand the implications of what he has agreed to do.
While Warlow is confined underground, Powyss is free to enjoy his reading, his gardens, and to meet weekly with Warlow’s wife to pay her an allowance. At first he thinks he will include her in the write-up of the experiment, but soon he realises that his contact with the Warlow family means he is no longer a neutral observer. He has become involved with his subjects.
The story is told with a lightness of tone and a keen sense of the absurd which highlights, rather than detracts from, the horror of Warlow’s ordeal. The fact that Warlow is not a particularly sympathetic character — he apparently beats his children, and doesn’t appear to much consider the people he has left behind — makes the story all the more compelling. Should we only care when nice people suffer?
Beyond the house is a society in flux, as news of post-revolutionary France is shaking up people’s certainties about institutions and their authority. Powyss, despite his self-imposed isolation, is aware of developments through his reading and his correspondence with his London friend.
Meanwhile, radical ideas have reached his own household. Catherine, the housemaid, is educated but unable, due to poverty, to pursue her dream to become a teacher. She is reading Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man to the head gardener, who both needs and resents her for her superior literacy.
As the story develops, events in the house mirror those in wider society. There is an increasing loss of deference towards Powyss. The staff split on political lines – those who want to maintain the existing order, those who are challenging it, those who just want to get through the day and are not concerned with issues of principle. Meanwhile there is the constant, gnawing awareness of Warlow and what he is enduring.
The last section of The Warlow Experiment deals with the aftermath of his isolation, and is more dramatic – perhaps melodramatic – than the rest. For me, though, the book is at its strongest when the characters are all confined to the house, when minor shifts in mood and authority are under the microscope. This is the author’s experiment, one in which we as readers are complicit, and it is darkly fascinating.
A note on the audiobook: I really enjoyed the narration by Mark Meadows. He has a slightly arch tone which is perfect for this story. The voice of Warlow, whose thoughts become increasingly fragmented, is particularly vividly evoked.
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