My usual invitation to you to play along. Any book title, or the surname of an author, as long as it begins with ‘S’.
I have to give due credit to William Shakespeare in the letter ‘S’. Though he was not a novelist, his plays have undoubtedly been the basis of much of our education in English literature, as well as providing a fascinating look at different periods in history. Some of his interpretations have been challenged over details of historical facts, and others, such as his portrayal of Richard III, continue to be controversial to this day. There can be few people who have never seen one of his plays, whether on stage, in a TV adaptation, or as one of the many films adaptations. Anyone living in Britain has undoubtedly studied one or more of his works, just to be able to sit exams. He left us with many wonderful characters, including one my own enduring favourites, Falstaff, and a wealth of wit and humour in an unequalled body of work. Some academics argue that he didn’t even write them.
But it hardly matters any more who did.
Sir Walter Scott was a Scottish historical novelist who published most of his books in the early 19th century. As a child, I was given a copy of his novel ‘Ivanhoe’, and became lost in the tale of the brave Knights, and the chivalrous acts of derring-do. It also dealt with issues such as the persecution of the Jews in 12th century England, and the rigid class system at the time. I looked for more of his books in the local library, and found a copy of ‘Rob Roy’. This tale of combat, betrayal, and cruelty set during the 18th century occupation of Scotland by an English army, introduced me to the period of social deprivation imposed on the Scottish people, and the harsh living conditions they endured too. Both novels have been filmed, not always with an eye for accuracy, or faithful adaptation.
It is well known on this blog that I consider Alfred Hitchcock to be an overrated film-maker. However, I do love some of his films, including ‘Strangers on a Train’, made in 1951. It took me many years to discover that this was based on a novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, published a year earlier. Although I had seen the film, I got a copy of the book, and even knowing how it would end, I still enjoyed it immensely. If you don’t know the story, it is a marvellous psychological thriller, based on an unusual premise. Two men meet on a train, and share stories of how they are unhappy with the women in their lives. One suggests the idea of ‘mutual murder’. Each will kill the other’s troublesome female, establishing alibis by doing so. I can recommend both the book, and the film adaptation.
The hothouse atmosphere of the early Puritan settlements in America is the setting for ‘The Scarlet Letter’, a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and published in 1850. Convicted of adultery and of bearing an illegitimate child, Hester is forced to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ on her clothing, so that everyone will be aware of her shame. This is a tale of lost love, morals, religion, and persecution. Although it is in essence a romantic novel, the historical detail and accurate descriptions of the everyday lives of the settlers raises the book far above many offerings in the genre.
Leaving you with a vast number of options for this letter, I come to my top choice today. Perhaps not considered to be an important work of fiction, I was nevertheless consumed by the fascinating historical novel ‘Shogun’, in 1975. The first of James Clavell’s Asian trilogy, I never got around to reading the other two books, I confess. But this story of feudal Japan in the 17th century taught me more about the history of that country than I ever knew before, and introduced many interesting characters to explain the clash of cultures when a western sailor is shipwrecked, and imprisoned by a warlord. This book has over 1100 pages, so it’s very long. That length gives Clavell the opportunity to develop the story, as well as following the history of Japan during very turbulent times. It was later made into a faithful TV mini-series, starring Richard Chamberlain, and the superb Toshiro Mifune.