The Warlow Experiment is a dark, sinister and seductive historical novel that will have you under its spell within the first few pages. Inspired by a snippet found in a late eighteenth-century chronicle, Alix Nathan has woven a tale of obsession set within the milieu of Enlightenment-era natural philosophy—a world of experiment, observation, and fascinating new discoveries. You can read more about how the book got started and an extract from this captivating novel, below.
I have volumes of the Annual Register from 1789 to 1814 and found this in the ‘Chronicle’ of the volume for 1797:
Some time ago, a Mr Powyfs, of Moreham, near Prefton, offered by public advertifement, a reward of fifty pounds for life, to any man who would undertake to live for feven years under ground, without feeing 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 fhould defire, and provifions were to be ferved from Mr P’s table; on ringing a bell the reclufe was alfo to be provided with every convenience defired. It appears that an occupier offered himfelf for this fingular refidence, 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.
I was fascinated by this account, though unable to find out anything more, especially how it ended. I wrote a short story in an attempt to understand Mr P., another from the point of view of the man underground, then realised that both deserved fuller consideration. The novel is entirely my reimagining of the episode.
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
DOWN AND DOWN. He sniffs dank air, listens to the man. Powyss.
‘i’m providing plenty of fuel and kindling, Warlow. You’ll have four baskets of wood a day and a scuttle of sea coal. They’ll come down in the morning. There’s a tinderbox, oil lamps, boxes of candles in that cupboard over there. The jar of lamp oil will be refilled each week, but that’ll depend on your use of it. Send a note if you need more.
‘i’ve tried out everything myself and it all works perfectly. Samuel, get a fire going for Warlow.’
‘i makes my own fire!’
‘Yes, of course, of course. But let’s warm the place while i’m showing you round.’
White cloth. Fork, spoon. Them’s silver. Wine glass! Chair legs like bent knees; never sat on one of them. Look at it! Candlesticks all shone up. Brass. Pictures.
Who’s that in the mirror? Me is it? Him?
‘Three meals a day, as i said. When Jenkins carves at table he’ll dole out a serving for you and send it down by lift. i’m rather pleased with this. Over here. Look: you open it up and inside are two shelves. It’s just a dumb waiter table but without legs and fixed to a pulley. Like hauling sacks up into the barn.
‘Don’t look dumbfounded, Warlow! It’s quite big enough for trays, strong enough for the fuel box. Has to come a long way down but with covers the food should remain hot. Pull the cord to send back empty dishes. Ring the bell first to alert them in the kitchen.’
Powyss moves to the other side of the room. He follows, doglike.
‘Here’s the organ.’
Powyss opens the doors of a cupboard.
Not a cupboard. Metal pipes stand in order. Big ones, little ones.
Powyss lifts the lid on the keys. His fingers are thin, very clean.
What’s him want me to do now?
‘The case of this chamber organ is walnut. Beautifully made. I hope it will amuse you, Warlow. It’s a good one; I tried several and this was certainly the best. While you play you pump with your feet to keep the air going through the pipes. Not too heavily. You don’t want to crack the underboard.’
He sits. Feet up and down, treading. It wheezes like an old woman.
‘See?’ He plays a tune, humming with it. ‘The conquering hero! That’ll keep you in the right mood.’
‘Couldn’t never do that.’
‘Mm. Well, you can sing, can’t you? You could pick out the notes of a tune with one finger.’ I sings in the Dog. The others’d laugh at this! Looks away, sheepish.
‘Of course I didn’t know who would take up the offer.
There’s a whole folder of music: more Handel, hymns, J.C. Bach. But no matter.
‘Now, come this way. This little room’s the bathroom. Water comes into the bath from the cistern. Turn the tap.’ ‘Bath? Sir?’
‘i know there’ll be no one to see you, but you’ll want to wash yourself. Even without grime from fields and horses and so on. Your beard and hair will grow long. Remember? No cutting. There are no scissors, no knives. You couldn’t cut your own hair anyway, could you?’ Gabble, gabble. Him’s gabblin like a goose can’t stop. Not drunk though. Don’t get drunk not him.
Powyss looks him up and down. ‘Hmm. You may find the bathtub a tight fit, Warlow. But look, here’s the soap, Military Cake, nothing too perfumed. Toothbrush, powder. When you need replenishments you must ask. Do that by writing a note, then ring the bell and send it up. The water’s cold of course. At one time that was thought to be very good for the health, but the bath’s not so far from the fire. The cistern’s over there to one side. Keep an eye on it, please.’
They wander back. Fire’s blazing merrily.
‘Send up your dirty linen. Send up your pot from the close-stool.’
Pot! Close-stool! He looks down. Sees his feet, his great clogs. Powyss’s leather shoes. Small for a man.
‘What work’ll i do, sir?’
‘Living here will be your work. Living here for seven years. For the sake of knowledge, of science: to see how you fare without human society. Your name will become known, Warlow! You’ll become famous.
‘Think of hermits who choose to live on their own for the rest of their lives, let alone seven years. Still, hermits spend their days in prayer and i’m not employing you to do that.’ He breaks off.
‘Do you believe in God, Warlow?’
‘i goes to church Christmastide.’
‘Well, never mind, i’m not quizzing you. Rarely go myself.
I’ve put a Bible here among the books, though. That could occupy you for seven years at least!’ He laughs, uneasy-like. Wish him’d go, let me get on with it.
‘Keep the place tidy and swept, won’t you. There are brooms, everything you need of that nature. Wind the clock every eighth day and note the date or you’ll lose track of time. This is the date hand. See, it shows which day of the month it is. If the chimes get on your nerves stop winding that side.’ Can’t remember all that.
‘Read the books and ask for any others you fancy. I’ve chosen them carefully. But I have a large library; you can ask for anything you like.’
‘Never read a book.’
‘Blessed is he that readeth! And now you’ll have the time to do it. You can read, can’t you? You said you could. And write? Of course you can, you signed the contract. There are pens, ink, paper and a journal. See, here’s the first, 1793. Please keep the journal. I’ll send a new one each year. Keeping it will help you and be crucial for me when I write everything up to send to the Royal Society.’
‘Journal, what is that, Mr Powyss, sir?’
‘You write in it what you do each day. First you write the date, then what has happened that day or you write what you’re thinking. Nothing very difficult. It’s a good thing you had some schooling.’
‘It were long years afore.’
‘It’ll all come back to you, I’m sure.’
Powyss shakes his hand. Him’s had enough too.
‘Good luck, Warlow! Don’t forget, your wife and children are taken care of. You’ll do it! We meet again in 1800.’
He smiles. Goes off in his fine black velvet breeches and coat. Locks the door. Instructs the footman Samuel on the other side.
Planks nailed across. Four of them. Hammering. The sound of metal sinking into the frame.
Alix Nathan lives in the Welsh Marches where she owns some ancient woodland with her husband. Her short stories have been published in Ambit, The London Magazine, New Welsh Review and read on BBC Radio 4. Her last two novels were published by Parthian Press.