An investigation into the ‘resilience of the human mind without society’, Herbert Powyss decides early in 1793, will make a significant contribution to human knowledge – one which will impress the renowned Royal Society in London, to whom he has already submitted papers on horticultural matters. As a Herefordshire landowner familiar with radical movements in the sciences and social politics, as well as a well-off bachelor with no distracting attachments, Powyss is ideally placed to conduct such research. Below the kitchen basement of his inherited manor house lie yet older cellars with thick stone walls. He has three rooms here repainted and refurbished with choice items of contemporary culture. The subject of his inquiry will live down there in solitude for seven years. He must live ‘naturally’ – no cutting of hair and nails, for example. But every day dishes of food (and very good food too) and a chamber pot will be sent down to him in a specially constructed lift. In return, the man will receive £50 every year for the rest of his life and his dependants will be satisfactorily provided for.
What kind of man would assent to such severe, life changing conditions? A poor one obviously. John Warlow, the sole applicant, is a local dissatisfied agricultural labourer whose wife, Hannah, means little to him, either personally or sexually. As for his six children, with the exception of his