In The Darwin Affair (Alongquin, June), Mason imagines a connection between an attempt on Queen Victoria’s life and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
Where did your lead, Insp. Charles Field, come from?
The novels of Charles Dickens have been lifelong companions. The Darwin Affair initially came via Inspector Bucket, the private investigator who darts here and there across the landscape of Bleak House. Morally ambiguous, he’s the sly, manipulative intelligence who gets people’s cooperation without their knowing it. He’s one of the first-ever fictional detectives, and he came to haunt me in the best way. Wouldn’t it be fun, I always thought, to write a novel in which Bucket was the main character?
So why isn’t Bucket in the book?
The story that slowly gathered around him involved actual historical characters. To mix historical figures such as Darwin and Thomas Huxley with a fictional one like Bucket wouldn’t work, I felt. But eventually I discovered that Mr. Bucket had a real-life counterpart. Dickens always denied his fictional character was modeled after a very real London police detective, Charles Frederick Field, but it’s very likely he was. 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.
In your story, Darwin’s place on the queen’s honors list triggers murder and mayhem. Was he really considered for a knighthood?
On the Origin of Species became an immediate sensation. Less than a month later, 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? I can’t say for certain. However, the personas and interests of these two vastly different 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. Ten years earlier, Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition had displayed the latest advances in technology from all over the world. Albert had faced fierce opposition for it from the establishment. Now a similar scenario was emerging: 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. So: no Sir Charles Darwin.