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Alix Nathan on the Parallels Between The Warlow Experiment and the Coronavirus Lockdown

Posted on 3rd July 2020 by Mark Skinner

Alix Nathan's The Warlow Experiment, fresh out in paperback as our Welsh Book of the Month for July, is centred around an intense experiment in isolation in eighteenth-century Wales. Due to the enforced lockdown that Britain has undergone during the coronavirus pandemic, Nathan's story has taken on an added resonance. In this exclusive piece, she draws parallels between fact and fiction.     

Years ago I became obsessed with the idea of a man confined underground, alone, when I read a short paragraph in the Annual Register for 1797.

Such a strange story with intriguing details: ‘commodious appartments’[sic], chamber organ, cold bath, ‘as many books as the occupier should desire’, ‘provisions from Mr P’s table’, all ‘without seeing a human face’.

With little to go on and no further information, I stopped everyone, Ancient Mariner-like, demanded they say what they thought happened; ruined sociable lunches by going on and on. In the end I had to ‘solve’ the mystery by writing.

Those patient, kindly reactions would be so different now! Lockdown: we all know what it’s like. Here, on the Welsh border, the two of us have been in isolation since the Ides of March.

But Warlow lived in lockdown for seven years.

Even if I began afresh today, I wouldn’t write the novel differently, for the fundamental questions remain: why is the experiment set up and how does the man below cope? Mr Powyss, the experiment’s creator, has to be someone who doesn’t see social isolation as hard. I make him solipsistic, a man who prefers plants and books to his fellow men, who’s happiest in the hothouse or his library, apart from the rare dash to London to buy sex and newly-imported plants. He certainly doesn’t want the subject of the experiment to suffer, creates as much physical comfort as possible in the apartments below, is delighted to try out a week underground himself. 

I ask you: what writer wouldn’t like the idea of being alone with books and writing materials, meals and clean clothes provided? Some readers tweeted approval of such a prospect. I certainly know of people enjoying lockdown.

Warlow was neither reader nor writer. All along I suspected that he would go ‘mad’ at some point in the seven years. We know that the pandemic-enforced isolation has created or exacerbated mental problems. For Warlow’s suffering to be ‘real’ I had to sink myself into his character as well as his situation.

Although I was initially sympathetic to Powyss, plotting an emotionally deprived childhood to psychologically underpin his actions, it was Warlow’s experience that I imagined most fully. With Powyss I could indulge a fantasy of owning an estate (with gardeners!) on which to grow, trees, flowers, vegetables and fruit.  With Warlow I had to contemplate utter loneliness, paranoia, terror.

The novel’s structure drives complete contrast between the two men, requiring Warlow to be coarse, brutal, barely literate, with a limited inner life. Yet as I dropped more deeply into his experience I warmed to him, pitied him, felt affection for him. I especially wanted to show how it could be understandable for someone to do something terrible. How, given the circumstances of his isolation, the goading to which he’s subject, his near-blindness, exhaustion and reluctance to return home, he is compelled to act violently.

While writing that particular scene I felt, and hope the reader will feel, compassion for Warlow, even at the very instant of extreme violence. I’ve only just realised that it was a sub-Othello moment for me.

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