For decades, playwright and YA author Tim Mason (The Last Synapsid) has been intrigued by a minor character in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House—Inspector Bucket, who is based on an actual London policeman named Charles Field. “I always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to write a fiction in which he was the leading character instead of a supporting one.’ ” That’s how Mason’s debut adult novel, The Darwin Affair (Algonquin, June), began.
Because Mason’s father, a Lutheran minister, also happened to be a Charles Darwin devotee, the scientist was often a topic of conversation. “The more I looked into [Darwin’s life], I was deeply attracted by his lovely demeanor as a family man and father.” In 1860, Darwin was up for knighthood, just a few months after publication of On the Origin of Species. Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, advised Queen Victoria against knighting him. Mason explains, “Wilberforce was close to the royal family. He said that Victoria is not only the queen, she’s the head of the Church of England, so to endorse Darwin’s theory would not be good.” In his novel, Mason expands on the fictional notion that nefarious goings-on were what kept the evolutionist from getting his knighthood.
Another point of interest for Mason were the strong reactions then and now to On the Origin of Species. “The publication was not only condemned, it was also hailed—even by members of the Anglican clergy, who, because of geological and anthropological discoveries, were acknowledging that Earth was inconceivably older than they thought it was,” Mason says. “Suddenly in that era, here comes this man with his theory about the development of species, which does not follow the creationist seven-day plan, but rather the opposite.
“Today, you can hear echoes of that first condemnation pretty loudly; the suppression of knowledge, of science is still going on. That creates a danger. So, beyond its entertainment value, if there’s a reminder of that in The Darwin Affair, I’d be really happy.”
Mason says that writing his first book, a YA novel, was an education in writing prose fiction. “I’ve made my life and my living as a playwright, though, and there couldn’t be a greater difference between the two forms,” he adds. “The stage has an enormous amount of limitations—you can’t go here and there at will without using very theatrical techniques, whereas in a novel, you can travel with the reader—great distances with changing landscapes—and for a playwright bound by the limitations of the stage, that was a real joy.”