Tag Archives: French Revolution

#Bookreview ‘The Warlow Experiment’ by @alixnathan #literary #historical

Alix NathanThis is a story of two men. One plays at being a god. The other grabs a chance to escape poverty. The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan is about power, ambition, control, the disintegration of respect and vanishing of common sense. What a breath of fresh air this book is; it is so unusual. The country gentleman who conducts the experiment, Powyss, is an isolated character. He has no family and, when he has the idea of experimenting with the life of another man, thinks he is doing good by supporting the man’s family. In truth he seeks the approbation of the Royal Society.

Warlow is a farm labourer who scrapes a living at the edge of starvation, struggling to feed this family. When he sees an advertisement asking for a man to take part in Powyss’s experiment, he sees it as an escape. So what is the experiment? Powyss is a man who experiments with exotic seedlings and plants. He sources them from abroad and studies them, experimenting with conditions – soil, temperature, water – to see which flourish in the climate of the Marches climate. It is a short step for him to wonder how a man would fare without seeing a human face for seven years. A cellar is converted in Powyss mansion, furnished with carpets, bedstead and comfortable mattress, an organ, books, writing equipment and a dumb waiter lift which is the only means of communication with above. He is forbidden to talk to anyone; his needs are communicated by notes sent up in the lift. But Powyss forgets to vary Warlow’s conditions, whose surroundings remain the same. He is below ground with no natural light; the only sign of changing daylight and season is from the frogs that find their way into his cellar via a grating. At the beginning both men are happy with the scheme; both think they benefit. Powyss makes his observations; Warlow escapes his grinding life of work and poverty. He was knocked around by his father, and now knocks around his own kids. He longs for something better and decides that when he gets out, he will have earned enough money not to work and so will drink all day instead. Neither man realise what they have undertaken.

The story is told by three people; Powyss, Warlow and Catherine, a servant in the Powyss household. I would also like to have heard the first hand story of Mrs Warlow, who has quite a part to play. The beginning of Warlow’s viewpoint reminds me of Emma Donoghue’s Room; the repetition of simple detail as he studies his surroundings, he focuses on the functional. He is barely literate but, as Powyss impresses on him that it is part of his job to write a journal, Warlow begins to write. Nathan’s portrayal of the early attempts of this uneducated man to write, the bad spelling, the stumbling expression, are convincing; later I wanted his stream of consciousness ramblings to be more concise. The imprisonment represents only the first part of the story; there is more to tell than the experiment itself. The servants in Powyss household become uncomfortable with their part in the proceedings, they also observe Mrs Warlow as she visits the house to receive the payment from Powyss promised as part of Warlow’s contract. Unknown to her, Mrs Warlow becomes the subject of a secondary report into the ‘lateral effects’ on the man’s family.

A sub-plot sets this story in its time. Revolution rumbles on in France and there are demonstrations in London against the King and prime minister Pitt. Head gardener Abraham Price is a rebel who seduces housemaid Catherine with talk of improvement, of rights, of freedom without masters. This country mansion in the Marches reflects the class tensions in the country – rich/poor, vote/no vote. Powyss receives the latest information about politics and uprisings in letters from his London correspondent. In exchange for boxes of fruit, Fox is the only voice Powyss hears from outside his insular world. He questions the morality of the experiment but Powyss refuses to listen; he also fails to see how the servants observe the experiment with dislike. He is a naïve man who fails to understand he is destined to be part of the experiment too.

This is such an unusual subject and in an Author’s Note, Nathan explains where she got the idea. She read a report of a man in 1797 who conducted such an experiment as that of Powyss. She was intrigued and wrote two short stories, one from the viewpoint of each man. After that, she realised there was a bigger story to tell. I’m glad she did. It is an unusual, absorbing read. It deserves time to be read, so please don’t rush it.

If you like this, try:-
The Quick’ by Lauren Owen
The Night Child’ by Anna Quinn
Master of Shadows’ by Neil Oliver

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Book review: Birdcage Walk

Helen DunmoreBirdcage Walk is the last novel by the incomparable Helen Dunmore who moved between subjects and periods with ease, setting the dramatic minutiae of people’s lives against the huge social events of the time. War, spies and, in Birdcage Walk, the French Revolution and how its impacts on a family in Bristol.

The novel opens as a walker and his dog discover a hidden grave in the undergrowth of a derelict graveyard. He reads the inscription to Julia Elizabeth Fawkes but subsequent research finds no information about her. This is followed by a short night-time scene in 1789 of a man burying a body in woods. We do not know the location, his identity or that of the body. How are these two things connected? For the first half of the book, I forgot these two short scenes until growing menace made me recall it and read faster.

It is 1792. This is the story of young wife Lizzie Fawkes, new wife of Bristol builder John Diner Tredevant and daughter of writer Julia Fawkes. Diner, as he is known, is developing a grand terrace of houses on the cliffs at Clifton Gorge, a development for which he specifies the best, borrowing against the potential sales. He is not keen on the company kept by his wife’s mother, seeing them as seditious socialists agitating in support of the French revolutionaries. He is aware of the potential cost to England, and his ambitious development, if the trouble in France turns into war. Lizzie is torn between two worlds, loyal to her Mammie and cautious about Augustus, her step-father and political pamphleteer, but aware her husband is under financial pressure. Diner is derided as a capitalist by Augustus and his writer friends. But Lizzie is proud, she chose her husband and remains loyal to him. But that loyalty and her young impressionable love for him are challenged. As news from Paris gets grimmer, Diner’s mood darkens. He must lay off workers, creditors chase payment, and he has night sweats. Insistent that independent Lizzie is his now, that he owns her and everything of hers, he is almost overpowering in his need to keep her close. She begins to fear he is having her followed and so disguises herself as she walks about town, lying about her visits home. And then there is the mystery of Diner’s first wife, Lucie, who died in France but of whom he does not speak. Lizzie fears he still loves Lucie.

This is a gently-written novel about tumultuous times in Europe, when the shadow of the unknown and fear – from the horrors in Paris to Diner’s secrets and his dark brooding nature – cannot be escaped. When the moment to run arrives, will Lizzie recognise it? If she does run, where to and who with? And will she know if she is running towards more danger? This is an expertly-written historical novel, rich in period detail, although the title is mentioned fleetingly and not referred to again.

Read my reviews of Dunmore’s The Lie and Exposure.

If you like this, try:-
‘The Walworth Beauty’ by Michèle Roberts
‘The Quick’ by Lauren Owen
‘The French Lesson’ by Hallie Rubenhold

‘Birdcage Walk’ by Helen Dunmore [UK: Windmill Books] Buy now

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Book review: The French Lesson

Hallie RubenholdThis is an entertaining account of Henrietta Lightfoot’s time in the Paris of 1792 during the French Revolution, a period of which my knowledge is scanty. The French Lesson is a women’s story told with authority by social historian Hallie Rubenhold, at a time when the new order replaced the old and changed women’s lives in the process.

Years after the event, Hettie writes her account of what happened at the request of a benefactor. As the novel opens, she is living in Brussels with the love of her life, George Allenham, 4th Baron Allenham of Herberton, expecting to be married and so calling herself Mrs Allenham. But when Allenham’s mysterious work takes him to Paris, he does not return. She receives a letter from him saying Paris is dangerous and though he must stay there for his work, she must return to England for her safety. But Hettie follows her heart to Paris.

With the Revolution threatening, she is attacked, robbed, rescued and so finds herself indebted to Mrs Grace Elliot, an English woman who survives in Paris as a lover to rich important men. Hettie is drawn into this life too. The French Lesson is an enjoyable account of a fast-paced, thrilling and bloodthirsty moment in history, combining real characters – d’Orleans, known as Philippe Égalité after the Revolution; his current mistress, Agnès de Buffon; and former mistress, Mrs Elliot – with fictional characters Hettie and Allenham.

As always in war, people are not what they seem. Hettie is driven on first by love, then by the need to survive. She is told by Mrs Elliot not ‘to trust’ and it is a hard lesson to learn.

I learned after reading The French Lesson that it is the second of a trilogy – the first is Mistress of My Fate – though it can be happily read as a stand-alone novel.

Read more about Hallie Rubenhold’s books at her website.

If you like ‘The French Lesson’, try these other novels set in France:-
‘In Another Life’ by Julie Christine Johnson
‘An Officer and a Spy’ by Robert Harris
‘Citadel’ by Kate Mosse

‘The French Lesson’ by Hallie Rubenhold [UK: Doubleday] Buy at Amazon

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