What is lurking beneath Herbert Powyss' house?
That's the question at the center of British author Alix Nathan's novel, The Warlow Experiment. Powyss is a country gentleman. He prefers gardens and books to people; spends his days designing hothouses for his estate, growing exotic seeds, grafting pear trees and submitting minor horticultural findings to the world's preeminent scientific body, the Royal Society.
He lives surrounded by the ancient woodlands of the Welsh Marches and talks to his servants only long enough to give them a word or two of an order. He dines and visits with no one and is proud that he has only one friend — an old schoolmate in London who forces the events of the outside world on Powyss through his letters. The year is 1796 and it's only been a short while since the French sent their king to the guillotine and America won its independence. Revolutionary fever has spread to England; Thomas Paine's Rights of Man is now in the hands of England's laboring classes. Watch out, warns Powyss' old friend, England may be next to see its hierarchies overthrown.
Powyss is told these things against his will; he has no interest in revolutions, only in science. And so he embarks on his great experiment, one which could bring him fame: He offers 50 pounds a year for life to any man who agrees to live underground for seven years, without seeing or talking to anyone. He wants to see what exactly a man needs to thrive.
Powyss has in effect been living out this experiment above ground; he's just kicking it up a notch. He eagerly prepares the rooms for his experiment — the cellars that sit even deeper than the house's 13th-century moat. He bricks, plasters and papers over the thick, damp stone walls, lavishly decorates with beautiful objects he himself would enjoy — a Dutch still life on the wall; English landscapes and seascapes; his own chalk and pencil sketch of Robinson Crusoe. He packs the newly built shelves with Voltaire and Defoe, books on astronomy, mathematics. A lift he designed will bring down the same food he is served and remove dirty clothes and chamber pots.
A common laborer — John Warlow — is the only man to answer Powyss' advertisement. Warlow is "a great, brawny man ... rock-boned, his features crude." A man who has never seen his face in a mirror, a man who beats his six children and his wife. "Don't look dumbfounded, Warlow!" Powyss tells him as he shows him around his luxurious new subterranean home. Powyss lifts the lid on an expensive organ so Warlow can admire it, but the man only eyes him suspiciously, thinks, "What's him want me to do now?" All Warlow cares about is the bed.
Nonetheless, Powyss is elated as he walks up the stairs and orders his footman to nail planks across the door, sealing Warlow up for seven years. For he thinks he already knows how his experiment will end: Warlow will emerge spouting Virgil, his mind enriched by the solitude.
As in many a relationship (lord-serf, mother-daughter, master-pet?) Powyss is working out his own demons through those who are subservient to him. His father was erratic, his mother lost to religion: Powyss spends his entire adulthood proving to himself that he is rational, reasoned. He needs only himself, he thinks, and great works of art, of intellect — not the messy, bloody beings that created them. He is wrong. As his misbegotten experiment starts to go dangerously awry, he loses hold of his own mind. At the same time, revolutionary fever reaches his remote corner of the world and his servants begin to act on their thoughts and desires instead of suppressing them.
The estate's old order is broken, but it is the women, not Powyss, who suffer the most. Needlessly, terribly. Warlow's daughters, his wife Catherine (like her mother before her); Powyss' maids. The women in Nathan's novel are shut out from education, from most of the economy. They are at the mercy of the vain men exploding around them. Nathan is a lyrical writer, and a brutal and powerful one. No man ever looks at a woman in this book without rating her looks. The exception is Powyss' cook, who is old and therefore seemingly past such debasement. But then he decides to dismiss all of his staff, and she too breaks, "Who will employ a woman of my years, however good I am at cooking? For writing I cannot."
"Women be devils," Warlow likes to say. But he and Powyss are the monsters. The Warlow Experiment is the dark side of the manor house, a microcosmic exploration of a system where one person, by accident of birth, controls the fate of many. Herbert Powyss is not evil, but entitlement does flow through his veins. He is spiritually damaged, frail; he longs for love and doesn't know it, hasn't been taught to feel it, recognize it or protect it. Through him, Nathan shows how even a seemingly benevolent master can ruin lives as easily as he breathes. That underneath Moreham House's tables of sweet tarts and orange jellies, its Apulian vases and espaliered pear trees, its books of classical ideals and natural philosophy, there is the life of a servant or laborer, that of a mother or child, inextricably run down and destroyed. The system of entitlement is too entrenched and even revolution, large or small, can't save them.
What is lurking beneath Herbert Powyss' house? Exactly what we feared.
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