PW: It's been seven years between the publication of Charles Darwin: Voyaging and your new book, subtitled The Power of Place. Where have you been all this time?
JB: I've been in the archives. This second volume has required a great deal more work in the archives looking at this material on the old bits of paper, because it's not been transcribed, it's not been published before. Much of Darwin's life is in this paper. The manuscript archives is enormous—14,000 letters as well as all the handwritten manuscripts of the books that he published.
PW: Given the stellar success of the first book, did you feel pressure to match or surpass it with the second?
JB: I did find that very difficult, yes. I found it frightening because in the first volume I had so much to say and it almost wrote itself. It came from the heart and it came easily and fluidly. In the second, I had to work out how to shape and to work out Darwin as an older man. As a technical exercise I found it very demanding.
PW: With the life finally done, are you at all tired of Darwin's company?
JB: Not at all. I would simply love to meet him. He was endlessly intriguing, endlessly inventive. He was interesting, rather jolly at times and a genuinely nice man.
PW: You attribute Darwin's success in part to his "command of the media or penetration of significant institutions."
JB: Darwin was greatly concerned with the reception of his work. He was not by nature a manipulative man, but he managed to create an extensive network of friends and relations, correspondences, people he knew in high places, all of whom he wrote to, to put his work in the right hands, to encourage a good review, to say the right thing at the right time.
PW: You write that at the heart of the evolution debate was the question of "who had the right to explain the origin of living beings—should it be theologians or scientists?"
JB: That's exactly the knob of the problem. Humans have always traditionally been part of the general cultural view that we were God's creation, though not very many people in Europe believed we had been physically shaped of clay, and that it was theologians and churchmen who told us this. Then up come the scientists saying that that's not right, we're simply part of the sequences of changes. I'm very sympathetic to Darwin's residual belief. I feel that he was anxious not to upset his closest friends, who were religious but also were prepared to believe in evolution. He did not want to create too much controversy. He was a scientist, not religious, but he was sensitive to others' beliefs.
PW: You write that Origin appeared "as great cultural shifts became manifest—shifts in the status of science, in religious belief, in the impact of publishing, education, and social mobility."
JB: One of the things that hasn't been done with Darwin's life, and something I'm very pleased to have done, is a discussion about the publishing world and the evolution of mass production techniques, cheap book productions and the proliferation of review journals. All these things came to a peak in Victorian Britain, the age of Dickens's novels. Part of the success of Origin has to do with the way publishing was developing and exploding at the time, and I've put a great deal of interest in that. He was the first to insist on royalty payments. I've had a lot of fun thinking about publishing history.
PW: As an author yourself, can you relate to Darwin in this regard?
JB: Yes. Because of my interest in the history of the publishing world, I'm very alert to all those people who help produce a book, so I have made a particular point in discussing the editorial work that Darwin's wife and daughter did on his manuscript. They edited it at home because publishing houses had no in-house editors, only production people. Normally it would have been the women in the family that would have helped with the spelling and the commas.