Below the surface of a 200-year-old mystery

Why was an 18th-century man employed to live underground for seven years? Inspired by history, Alix Nathan set out to imagine her way out of the mystery.

The advertisement at the root of my novel The Warlow Experiment comes from a collapsing 18th-century volume of The Annual Register. The register, which is still published today, is a compilation of everything that happens in one year – political events, wars, state papers, court reports, inventions, new books, a poem or two.

I’ve collected several 18th-century Annual Registers, and for me their greatest attraction is a section called Chronicle, in which for each month of the year small reports are presented from across the country. At the end of the 1700s newspapers were taking off in a big way and I can only think that the Annual Register editors – the first of whom was Edmund Burke in 1758 – must have enjoyed themselves hugely, picking out the juiciest stories from new and sometimes obscure local papers.

In the Chronicle you find extremes of weather: whirlwinds, immense hailstones, the days-long fair held on the frozen Thames; drastic fires: gunpowder factories exploded, whole streets burned down; robberies; royal celebrations; far too many executions; remarkably long-lived folk; canal openings and a cricket match in Greenwich between one-legged pensioners and those with one arm.

It’s the stories of ordinary lives that are fascinating, just as they are today. Yet often reports are tantalisingly brief: why did the pedlar who was found to be a woman disguise herself for 20 years? What happened to the boy who hoisted the French tricolour on the White Tower? Why was a woman burned at the stake in 1789 when male coiners – men who made counterfeit coins – were hanged?

Then, in the 1797 volume I found an advertisement for someone to live underground, contained in a report claiming that an unnamed man had survived in such conditions for four years. The report was very short and left me wondering.

In the 18th century it became fashionable for some owners of large estates who wanted a “romantic” landscape to employ a hermit on their land, presumably to impress visitors. There was no National Trust in those days but you could look over an estate if you asked politely. Think of the visit to Mr Darcy’s Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice.

Yet the advertisement was not for someone to live like a hermit. Apart from not cutting his hair and nails, he was to be fed three very good meals a day, the rooms underground were fitted out luxuriously, there was plenty of fuel for heat, oil and candles for light, water for washing (admittedly cold), lots of
books to read and a chamber organ to play. Any other requests would be taken seriously.

So what was going on? I became obsessed with the story and asked everyone I knew or met what they thought would happen to the man underground. Would there have to be a bad ending? Could anything good come out of it? “Of course there’d be a good outcome,” one optimistic person said to me. “He’d learn to read.”

For a while I tried to discover what actually happened, chasing up maps and local newspapers. The Lancashire estate mentioned in the register didn’t exist, searches for the Mr Powyss in the article sent me off on tangents and the Annual Register for 1800 said nothing about the nameless man’s emergence from underground after the seven years stipulated in the advertisement.

A historian would have worried at the few details until they found the answer or else had to abandon it. But I’m not a historian and preferred the challenge of trying to imagine my way into the experience of the man underground, whom I named Warlow. And once I’d begun, it was essential that I think of some explanation for the advertisement in the first place.

Before long I realised that it would have to end badly for Warlow, though I didn’t know how badly or in what way until I began writing. All I felt was that he’d have to go mad in some sense, though that word is hardly the right one. I hope readers will see how I question “madness” both in Warlow and in the scenes in the asylum towards the end of the book.

DID YOU KNOW…

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Of the two main characters it was actually much harder to think my way into Powyss. Constructing his childhood helped: a sensitive, only child with a pious, perpetually ill mother and an embarrassing social climber for a father became a solipsistic adult. As for Warlow, I tried sinking myself into the character of a barely educated, coarse man of limited experience, unable to free himself from memories of a terrible childhood and bound to the rhythm of the seasons.

It was very odd inhabiting the minds of two men so obviously different in
their lives and thoughts from mine. And yet there are bits of me in each of them.

The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan is out now (Serpent’s Tail, £12.99)

Illustration: Joseph Joyce