“A Reward of £50 a year for life is offered to any man who will undertake to live for seven 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.”

This is the intriguing premise of Alix Nathan’s extraordinary new novel, The Warlow Experiment, which attempts to dissect the inherent complexity of human nature. The protagonist, Herbert Powyss, prides himself on his solipsism and the consequent detachment he has for those around him. Owner of a small estate, an implied atheist and a passionate horticulturalist — Nathan is generous in her description of Powyss’s love for exotic plants, trees, nature’s cycle and how it progresses with precision and predictability — he yearns to be recognised by the Royal Society, an establishment in London that promotes contributions to science and philosophy.

Powyss considers himself a man of science, whose purpose in life is to gain knowledge and enrich his life by practicing cultivation. He has no desire to form relationships beyond a certain extent. He maintains a correspondence with Benjamin Fox, his one and only ‘friend’, to discuss observations on philosophy. Fox is a loud, sociable Unitarian, the antithesis of Powyss, and his constant criticism of Powyss’s preference for solitude gives birth to the idea of the experiment: “…a firm counter to the implicit criticism of his way of life. His experiment was not just for himself. It was for science, for mankind. For all who would learn how it might be possible for a human being to live without the company of others ... For all who were curious about the resilience of the human mind. What could be more important than that?”

John Warlow, a semi-literate labourer living on the fringes of poverty with his wife and six children, volunteers to be the subject of self-imposed isolation. He is given richly furnished rooms packed with books, a fireplace and a musical instrument with which to entertain himself. According to Powyss’s instructions, Warlow will “Just have to live...Live. That means eat. Sleep. Not cut his hair. Wind clock.” The simplicity of this proposition is astounding for someone such as Warlow who, understandably, does not see the complication of the matter. Ironically, Powyss, with all his education and knowledge on matters of philosophy and human nature, too, sees the experiment as relatively straightforward.

An astonishing novel that sets out to explore complex theories regarding the human experience shows that thought often spills out from within the seams that try to constrain it

Powyss painstakingly selects the books given to Warlow — Voltaire’s Candide and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe among them. Warlow will be served the same food that appears on Powyss’s table. It is almost as if Powyss is banking on the fact that Warlow will come out of the experiment refined. However, it is clear from the start that Warlow is no connoisseur of literature, or music, or — as the reader later finds out — food. Nathan is considerate in her explanations of Warlow’s thoughts and point of view, but does not make him a simple man to identify with. Warlow’s initial awe towards the luxurious rooms and abundance of food, drink and tobacco soon fades as his chosen isolation begins to manifest itself in a much more pronounced way.

It is fascinating to see how the isolation affects both Warlow and Powyss. The reader is initially lulled to believe that Powyss will remain largely unaffected by the experiment. However, human nature — and life, for that matter — hardly ever remain within the seams. Powyss’s meticulously organised life comes to an end at the same time as he shutters the entrance to Warlow’s apartments beneath his own sprawling house. However, despite the themes of seclusion and self-perception that are central to the story, Nathan does not let the reader go through them. She provides an all expansive context; the late 1700s bring with them sparks of rebellion. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man has been published, banned and subsequently widely circulated and read by all those who can read. Arrests are being made of those who may seek to find inspiration. Powyss’s chosen life of solitude is on the precipice of inevitable change with regards to the events happening around him.

We are informed of the prevailing climate around Powyss by his continued correspondence with Fox — a stream of communication that is invaluable in understanding the nature of the experiment and how it overlaps into the lives of the protagonist and those that surround him. “Do I see my experiment as an act of pure goodness? No experiments are neutral, they lack a moral dimension. Acts of pure goodness are for God alone, if there is a God ... my experiment began as science, though I admit it now answers to science and charity.” The reader is drawn in to the discourse that follows as the author touches upon philosophy and human nature. The attempt to understand one’s own nature is hardly a simple task; its repercussions are boundless and indiscriminate and while Powyss sits up in the library contemplating, Warlow is forced to confront his own self, his thoughts and his purpose.

As the story progresses, it is clear that Powyss’s experiment, meant to be neutral and amoral, is everything but. Warlow’s motivation is material gain, Powyss’s is recognition.

Nathan does not waste time or words in creating characters irrelevant to her plot. All the other members of the story serve their own unique purpose and fight their own battles in an attempt to further Nathan’s perception of various philosophical concepts. Head gardener Abraham Price is a revolutionary-in-waiting, unencumbered by his lack of education. Catherine Croft, the maid, is intelligent beyond her station, stuck in a time where her class prohibits progress. Then there is the elusive Hannah Warlow who, despite her impoverished state, manages to transcend the bondages of station and circumstance.

As the story progresses, it is clear that Powyss’s experiment, meant to be neutral and amoral, is everything but. The passage of time shows how Powyss and Warlow are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. Where Warlow’s motivation to be the subject of the experiment is purely material gain, Powyss’s is recognition and contribution. In their attempts to get what they want most, they seem to forget that human thought often spills out from within the seams that try to constrain it. As the experiment continues and events around it unfold, no one is left untouched by its impact and that is where the story finds its feet and brings forth a narrative that explores the delicate balance required by the human condition to survive and thrive.

To write more about the plot would be a disservice to this astonishing novel. Nathan sets off on an odyssey of sorts where she attempts to deconstruct the myths surrounding human nature. Her prose is poignant in illustrating that, while man’s circumstances may dictate his way of life, it is the self-imposed prison of isolation he constructs for himself that influences him most and goes beyond any external environmental factors. The simplicity with which Nathan explores complex theories regarding the human experience is refreshing and surprising at the same time. With subtle yet impactful writing, The Warlow Experiment is a story that will stay with the reader for a long time to come.

The reviewer is a freelance writer with a background in law and literature

The Warlow Experiment
By Alix Nathan
Doubleday, UK
ISBN: 978-0385545334
272pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 5th, 2020