In Conversation with Tim Mason
Author of The Darwin Affair
Where did the idea for the book come from?
The novels of Charles Dickens have been lifelong companions. The Darwin Affair initially came via Inspector Bucket, the sly, morally ambiguous private investigator who darts here and there across the landscape of Bleak House. Wouldn’t it be fun, I always thought, to write a novel in which Bucket was the main character, instead of being a member of the supporting cast? However, the story that slowly gathered around him involved actual historical characters (Darwin, Robert FitzRoy, Thomas Huxley, Bishop Wilberforce, et alia). Eventually I discovered that Mr. Bucket had a real-life counterpart, Detective Inspector Charles Frederick Field. This discovery gave me permission to proceed. I wanted my book to be as historically accurate as possible. I would insert my fiction into the interstices.
Was Darwin really on an honors list? If so, what theories other than the entertaining one your plot posits, have been advanced for his never having been knighted?
On the Origin of Species Based on Natural Selection was published in late November, 1859. It became an immediate sensation. Less than a month later, Charles Darwin’s name likely appeared on a provisional list of those to be honored. Was it the Prime Minister, Palmerston, who suggested it to Victoria? Or was it Prince Albert? The personas and interests of these two men allow me to speculate that it was Albert’s idea. Palmerston was above all a politician, while Albert was keenly interested in all things scientific, making it likely that the possibility of a knighthood for Darwin was coming from the Palace, and that was perceived as a threat. It is widely believed that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce intervened to have Darwin’s name struck from the provisional honors list. Victoria was not only the Queen, ran the argument, she was also the head of the Church of England. As such it wouldn’t do to have Darwin’s theory royally endorsed by her.
What were your most valuable research sources?
In 2009, I mentioned the novel I’d just started working on to a British ex-pat friend who put me in touch with a woman in London who was “very up on all things Victorian.” Within days Jane Hill was generously answering questions, offering Victoriana, and correcting my early errors and my language. At her home I discovered a big coffee table book by the Duchess of York: Travels with Queen Victoria. Here I found details unavailable anywhere else, to my knowledge.
Of course, On Duty with Inspector Field, an article by Charles Dickens all about the real detective was a source, although my fictional Field eventually did not much resemble Dickens’ except for a few patterns of speech and behavior.
For an understanding of Charles Darwin, Annie’s Box: Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution by Randal Keynes provided a humane and moving portrait of the remarkable man, written by his great-great-grandson.
Finally, Queen Victoria herself taught me much. She kept a journal for most of her life, with entries dating from 1832 to 1901, when Victoria died. It was my great good fortune that these journals were put online and open to the public for a time in 2012, during Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee year. They enabled me to capture Victoria’s emphatic patterns of speech and thought, and were priceless when it came to documenting the journey she and her husband made to Coburg, Germany, in September and October of 1860. Here were detailed notes of their travels, straight from Her Majesty’s pen. Most important to me was her account of the carriage accident which so easily might have ended her dear Albert’s life… and which provided a pivot-point for my fiction.
What surprised you the most as you researched the period and the historical figures – Darwin, Marx, etc. whom you included in the story?
When one is fully engaged in writing something, the universe conspires to help one along. Suddenly coincidences abound: connections between historical figures, and facts which support one’s fiction. Sir Richard Owen, the prominent naturalist, really did tutor Victoria’s eldest son and heir to the throne. The relationship allowed me to imagine years of conversations between Owen and Prince Albert on matters scientific. Owen really did instruct Bishop Wilberforce prior to what’s become known as the great Wilberforce-Huxley debate in Oxford. Charles Dickens actually did employ the real Inspector Field to guard his amateur production of a play from the playwright’s angry wife, who threatened rotten tomatoes. Karl Marx cited Darwin twice in the first edition of Das Kapital, claiming Origin provided a scientific corroboration of Marx’s theories.
What rules did you set for yourself in using such figures?
It felt very cheeky to put words in the mouths of actual persons, and attribute actions to them of which they were wholly innocent. I did try to be as true as I could be to their characters, as I understood them. When I could use their actual words, I did, taking them, for instance, from the sermons of Wilberforce, or the writings of Huxley. If I did a disservice to any of them, it would be Sir Richard Owen, whom I’m sure never conspired to do the things I have accused him of in this fiction. (Although the man himself was not only brilliant, but a real meanie, vicious and malicious.)
Your lead, Inspector Field, was the inspiration for Dickens’ Inspector Bucket. What, without spoiling the plot, was his life like after he appeared in fictionalized form?
The real Inspector Field left the Metropolitan Police in 1852, 8 years before my unreal Inspector appears in The Darwin Affair, and just about when Bleak House was being published. The actual Field continued as a private investigator, and sometimes claimed still to be a bona fide policeman. While my fictional inspector is distressed by the fame Dickens thrust upon him, the real fellow boasted of it to such an extent that Dickens denied any connection between him and Mr. Bucket.
What do you believe are the biggest misconceptions about how Darwin’s theories were received at the time?
I was surprised by the extent to which the theory of evolution was accepted by a number of liberal Anglican clergymen. People already had begun to realize that the earth was almost inconceivably old; advances in geology already had paved the way, and the discovery of fossil dinosaur bones had opened eyes to unthought-of possibilities. The backlash, however, was severe. Darwin wrote about the first published reviewer that “he would on no account burn me, but he will get the wood ready…”
Finally, a fan question-what’s your next book, and the timeframe for its publication?
I’m working on it! The Darwin Affair took me nearly 4 years to write, but I fervently hope the new one will come quicker. I know the era better than I used to, and I know a cast of characters of whom I’ve become very fond: Jane Field, Tom Ginty, Belinda, Sam Llewellyn, and my old friend Inspector Field. I think they’ll be making another appearance.