SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

From scholarly historical research to prize-winning popular fiction

The scholarship of a SOAS professor inspired and informed a much-lauded work of literary expression, enriching it with historically accurate detail and bringing an obscure period of history to life for audiences around the world.

“Had I tried to write The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet fifteen years earlier, before Professor Screech’s work was published, it would have been an impoverished novel by comparison,” says celebrated British author David Mitchell, whose award-winning novel of 2010, set in Japan in the late 1700s, has sold in excess of 200,000 copies in 15 languages.

Indeed, the scholarship of Timon Screech, Professor of the History of Art, on under-researched areas of Japanese art, history and culture has reached a range of audiences outside of academia.  David Mitchell drew extensively upon several of Screech’s publications to inform and, ultimately, enrich his work of fiction, furnishing it with historical contextual detail unavailable in any other scholarly source.

Professor Screech’s treatment of little-explored aspects of Japanese history, art and culture makes him an authoritative voice, especially on the Edo period (1603-1868), when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate and characterised by strict social order and isolationist foreign policies.  Many of the scholar’s works constitute the only available resources concerning their subject matter, making a unique contribution to the world’s understanding of Japan. His accessible and entertaining writing style makes his work available to audiences beyond academia, resulting in considerable impact on cultural life and creativity.

David Mitchell’s novel, set at the turn of the eighteenth century, depicts Dejima, the Dutch East India Company’s walled enclave in the harbour of Nagasaki (for almost two centuries, Japan’s sole point of contact with the European world), and tells the story of a Dutch trader's love for a Japanese midwife. In order to give it greater historical authenticity, the novel incorporates numerous historical details, episodes and anecdotes featured only in Professor Screech’s work, such as his editions of the memoirs of two Dutch East India Company employees, Carl Peter Thunberg and Isaac Titsingh. The novel was also heavily informed by two of Professor Screech’s monographs, The Lens within the Heart and The Shogun’s Painted Culture. A close reading of these texts enabled Mitchell to recreate the intellectual world of the rangakusha, the Japanese scholars of European sciences and arts. A specific illustration of Mitchell’s use of Screech’s work is found in Chapter Four of the novel which features a description of bottles of pickled specimens outside the State Room of the Dutch East India Company in Dejima. These bottles, never before mentioned in scholarly work, figure prominently in Professor Screech’s analysis of medical and scientific exchange in The Lens within the Heart. Additionally, Mitchell’s depiction of a Nagasaki brothel was very much inspired by Screech’s Sex and the Floating World.

David Mitchell is frank about his “intellectual and imaginative” indebtedness to Professor Screech’s publications, and explicitly attests to influence:

“He is the kind of academic interpreter of history and ideas upon whom more popular interpreters (lower down the food chain) rely (…). In my opinion, nobody else is doing what Professor Screech does: making accessible to interested non-specialists (like me), via primary research, areas of Japanese and East Asian culture which would otherwise lie buried, just as the Titsingh and Thunberg memoirs languished in untranslated antiquarian obscurity for two centuries until his work appeared (…). Nobody else I know of possesses so deep a knowledge of the Tokugawa period – its arts, economics, politics, religion trade, popular culture, its view of itself – and writes about this milieu so accessibly, and with such authority and verve.”