Downstairs Abbey

Alix Nathan’s ‘The Warlow Experiment,’ in Which a Man Chooses to Spend Seven Years Locked in a Basement

In Alix Nathan’s The Warlow Experiment, John Warlow is an English laborer with a wife and six kids circa 1793—around the time the French are cutting off aristocrats’ heads and writer-activist Thomas Paine is publishing The Rights of Man. Folks like John might be getting a fair shake soon enough, but instead of putting in the grunt work, he accepts an offer he can’t refuse.

The landowner and science dabbler Herbert Powyss has it in his head to switch his experimental focus from the specimen in his garden to man. He wants to lock someone in his basement for seven years with plenty of food and comfortable amenities but absolutely no direct human contact. Powyss hopes to chronicle his findings in a paper that will impact scientific circles and grant him some bragging rights. For John’s participation, his wife Hannah gets a respectable sum each week for the little ones, a financial arrangement that is to last the rest of John’s days. The deal amounts to seven years of the father’s underground solitude in trade for a life of financial solvency for him and his family. There are worse bargains. It’s probably better than working at Amazon.

Still, there’s plenty of hand-wringing about the ethics of Powyss submitting Warlow to such an experiment. Some of the house’s servants sympathize with the “prisoner,” while Powyss’s peer and pen pal Fox offers a more reasoned opinion: “the advantages for the six children and their mother far outweigh seven years of minor deprivation for their father. Greater good thus drowns out evil.” It’s a fair dilemma, and Nathan’s numerous references to Paine ensure that thoughts on the rights of people are never far from the narrative thread. Doing what someone else wants is always, on some level, a sacrifice, but where’s the line between opportunity and tyranny?

Nathan’s choice of multiple points of view allows her to explore many different opinions on the subject, and it also affords her a great deal of agency in evoking the language and cadences of the locale. Powyss describes his less than appropriate interest in Hannah: “it was desire that had something of the excitement and sensuous pleasure he felt when he brought back a tree from Chelsea or Hackney, some new, unusual specimen, barely known in the country, wonderfully rare.” Powyss’s butler Jenkins describes the frequently tipsy cook Mrs. Rentfree as “bosky as a stewed fruit.” John tries to remember the name Robinson Crusoe, whose circumstances resemble his own: “It is that man from before. What was he called? He was like him, wasn’t he? Rob Robin. The strange Ad ventures.”

Through the deft use of dialect, Nathan renders several English souls while suggesting the styles of great writers from the past such as Austen, Dickens, and Joyce. These associations only add to the reading pleasure.

Art Edwards

Art Edwards’s reviews have appeared in Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Kenyon Review, among many others. He was cofounder of the Refreshments. His recently finished novel is called Nineteen Ways to Destroy Your Rock Band.

2 thoughts on “Downstairs Abbey

  • August 28, 2019 at 11:20 am
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    Thank you, Art, for this thoughtful and understanding review. Particularly pleased you liked the language and delighted the book gave pleasure!

    Reply
  • August 28, 2019 at 12:51 pm
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    So grateful you appreciate the write up, Alix. Best of luck with the novel.

    Reply

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