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BOOK REVIEW: The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan

| 9 May 2020 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan

Serpents Tail
August 2019
Hardcover, $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Fiction / Historical Fiction


What kind of person keeps a man underground for seven years? And who would agree to be part of such an experiment?

The year is 1792 and Herbert Powyss is set on making his name as a scientist. He is determined to study the effects of prolonged solitude on another human being, though before now Powyss’s sole subjects have been the plants in his greenhouse. He fills three rooms beneath Moreham House with books, paintings and even a pianoforte, then puts out an advertisement, hoping for a gentleman recluse to claim the substantial reward.

The only man desperate enough to apply is John Warlow, a semi-literate farm labourer who needs to support his wife Hannah and their six children. Cut off from nature and the turning of the seasons, Warlow soon begins losing his grip on sanity. Above ground, Powyss finds yet another distraction from his greenhouse in the form of Hannah, with whom he rapidly becomes obsessed. Does she return his feelings, or is she just afraid of his power over her family’s lives?

Meanwhile, the servants are brewing up a rebellion inspired by recent news from across the Channel. Powyss may have set events in motion, but he is powerless to prevent their explosive and devastating conclusion.

Elegantly told and utterly transporting, The Warlow Experiment is an outstanding literary novel that announces a major new voice in British fiction.

In eighteenth-century England, in an attempt to make a scientific name for himself, Herbert Powyss outlines an experiment, in which a man will be given all he could desire – food, art, books, music – but be cut off from human company for seven years. Some part of him knows how radical this experiment is, and he doesn’t mention it to his closest friend, but does forge ahead with the experiment.

Inspired, Powyss evolved the details of his investigation. The subject would live with all his needs answered: clean clothes, good food, mind nourished by music and books – bona librorum et frugis copia. But on his own; without even the sight of another human face. What effect would seven years of such existence have upon him?

Though he does come to realise that the ideal scenario he was hoping for is not what he has been given. Warlow is illiterate, and unable to take advantage of the books for entertainment, or to keep detailed records in his journal. Powyss finds himself falling for Warlow’s wife, feeling things for her he has felt for no woman before. And the servants of society are on the verge of riot.

Among these current events, he becomes less enamoured with his experiment.

In truth the business of recording had become tedious. The promise of a week of fame in the Royal Society following the delivery of his paper at the end of the experiment, perhaps 1801 by the time he’d written it up, had begun to blur. As if there was an aberration in the microscope lens or as if he’d failed to adjust it. But he didn’t want to adjust it. The quest for fame had begun to seem wearisome.


The story was inspired by an entry the author found in the Annual Register from 1797, in which the existence of the apartments fitted out for the purpose of this experiment were reported to exist, and a man with a large family – now in his fourth year of containment – had agreed to be the subject of the experiment. 

It’s a fascinating tidbit, and one can easily understand why the author was inspired to figure out how this might have gone down and flesh out the people involved. She was unable to find any other mention of the outcome, so had to write it for herself.

Unfortunately, for this reader, after spending a month trying to make it all the way through this not very long book (276 pages), I had to throw in the towel. I very much appreciate what the author was trying to do, and am sure it will work better for those who read a lot of historical fiction or literary fiction, but at 58% I just hadn’t seen enough in the way of events or redeemable character to make me want to push on any further. At 160 pages, I couldn’t see myself pushing on for another 116 pages. 

The premise of this book is fascinating, and something we’re all finding a little closer to home amidst the Covid situation. It’s definitely interesting to see how different events will impact a person, and though we have technology that allows us to keep in touch these days, we’re all experiencing a new kind of isolation currently.

If you want to feel better about your current isolation and you’re a fan of very plot-lite historical fiction with questionable character morals, maybe give it a shot, otherwise, there are much more engaging books to keep yourself occupied by during our own isolation experiment.

Category: Book Reviews

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