Women’s History: A Laudable Literary Lady

Women’s History: A Laudable Literary Lady

In keeping with our celebration of Women’s History Month, we’d like to share another incredible woman. Did you know that the first novel was written by a Japanese woman? The Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji) is the story of a fictional Japanese prince demoted to the rank of commoner. She lived a life filled with romantic antics with the occasional bit of political business (his job, an Imperial official) thrown in for flavor. Genji’s creator was a woman, who, though much of her life is lost to the passage of time, remains a remarkable example of an aristocratic woman in Heian Japan. 

Japanese History 

As an aside, I must emphasize that The Heian Period of Japanese history (794-1185 C.E.) saw several remarkable female literary masters. These masters include the Mother of Michitsuna (The Gossamer Years); Sei Shonagon (The Pillow Book); Izumi Shikibu (waka poetry); Takasue’s Daughter (As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams); and the subject of this Women’s History themed post, Murasaki Shikibu. Each is well worth discussing in their own right, but today we must content ourselves with one.  

Women's History - Murasaki Shikibu

Unfortunately, we do not know much of this author’s biography, nor even her real name. “Murasaki Shikibu” is a nickname: “Shikibu” references her father’s position within the Imperial service and “Murasaki” may be a reference to the Genji heroine. She was born around 978 C.E. into a junior branch of the powerful Fujiwara family, was the daughter of Imperial servant Fujiwara Tametoki.

She was very well-educated (even learning Chinese, which was typically restricted to male students – her father is said to have lamented that her natural genius was wasted on a girl-child) and in her twenties married a distant cousin, Fujiwara Nobutaka. It is presumed that he died after two years of marriage, leaving Murasaki alone with a young daughter. 

By her widowhood, Murasaki was already an accomplished poet and may have begun the early chapters of her masterwork, Genji. Legend has it that she began the novel while on retreat to Ishiyama Temple in Otsu following her husband’s death. Supposedly, she was so struck by the beauty of a full moon on a cloudless night that she began writing the first drafts of the 12th and 13th chapters. However, this account is disputed by many (though the Temple staff have always maintained its truthfulness). This literary reputation probably helped garner her a place in the Imperial Court. Well, one of them. 

At that time, two Fujiwara daughters, Teishi and Shoshi, claimed preeminence over the Imperial harem. The women were first cousins, each the daughter of successive heads of the Fujiwara clan. And each father in turn had convinced the emperor not only to marry their daughters, but to name each of their daughters Empress. For the first time, the Japanese court had two empresses, and inevitably a rivalry grew between them. Murasaki was drawn in on Shoshi’s side when she joined her entourage as a lady in waiting in 1005. Murasaki kept a diary of her time in the Imperial Palace, which allows us a fascinating glimpse into her (and the court’s) daily life.

The exact dates of Genji’s authorship are disputed, it is likely that at least a portion of the manuscript were completed during her Imperial service. It may well be that this experience enriched her text with the verisimilitude of courtly living. At the very least, two of her characters appear to be direct references to the rival Empresses of the day. Lady Kokiden is Genji’s bitterest rival throughout the novel, and later of his lover and ally Lady Fujitsubo. Empress Teishi lived in the Kokiden apartments of the Imperial Palace and Empress Shoshi, the Fujitsubo.

Murasaki’s Influence

Women's History Month - Murasaki

Although again, exact dates are unknown, Murasaki probably died around 1014 C.E. while in her early forties, but her cause of death is unknown. Genji, however, endured. Though it requires translation into modern Japanese (as its rough contemporary Beowulf does to modern English), it remains a staple of the Japanese education system. In Japan, it has been the subject of films, anime and manga, and plays. And with Arthur Waley’s English translation in the late 1920’s, the story was shared with an even wider audience.  

Today, you can watch a Portuguese-French film inspired by the Tale (O Desejado, 1987), visit a museum dedicated to it in Uji, Kyoto, Japan (where the last ten chapters are set), or attend the opera to see Genji performed onstage. While the philandering Genji might not be as sympathetic to modern audiences as other great literary heroes, the humanity and pathos of the Tale’s characters keeps it relevant, and the (nick)name of its author alive, for years to come. In her own, refined way, Murasaki was as keen an observer of the human condition as Jane Austen, and as careful to fully realize each of her characters.

The novel is imposing to English readers – it is long (the Penguin Classic edition runs to 1216 pages) and the naming conventions are unfamiliar to an English-speaking audience (much like Tolstoy’s). This is further complicated in that, during the Heian Period, it was considered gauche to use a person’s personal or family name, leading to the proliferation of nicknames and sobriquets (which may explain why the Tale’s author is known only by a pseudonym). Nevertheless, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the story, in film or manga form, or in the cherished original. I do not think you will regret the effort. 

Women's History Month: Nippon Ginko Bill

Works Consulted:

For more blogs about Women’s History, please see our other two HAI blog posts: The Incredible Mirabal Sisters and Two Amazing African Queens 

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Stephanie Webster

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