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Who is Lady Murasaki?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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Lady Murasaki Shikibu was a Japanese writer, a court lady in waiting, and considered by many to be the world's first novelist. Unlike many women of her time, the late 10th and early 11th century, Lady Murasaki received an education almost equivalent to her contemporary male peers. She studied Chinese with her brother, not thought an appropriate topic of study for women. Some accounts say that her father lamented that she was not a boy, since she was a quicker learner than her brother

When in her 20s, Lady Murasaki was married to an elderly relative, and with him she had her only daughter. Accounts say she sincerely mourned her husband’s death, a man delighted with her writing ability and her skill at composing waka, an early Japanese poetic form. Evidence suggests she had begun writing her stories The Tale of Genji before she commenced her life at court after her husband’s death.

What makes Genji distinctive is that it features a central character who sports with various court ladies in a variety of related anecdotes. Such stories, when they were short were often called “pillow books,” and were read by ladies and gentleman of the Japanese court. Lady Murasaki did not intend Genji to be a novel. In fact, no such word as novel existed in her lifetime. Instead the stories were written one at a time. They were collected into a single volume during her lifetime, and were immensely popular, read aloud or privately enjoyed.

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Genji is considered one of the master achievements of Japanese literature and marked for its unusual nature. Lady Murasaki was extremely intelligent and expressed herself with wit and ingenuity. This accounts for the novel’s continued popularity and its translation into numerous languages.

Lady Murasaki served in the court as a lady in waiting to Empress Akiko and is thought to have retired possibly to a Buddhist convent when she was in her late 50s. The court she described would soon undergo immense change with the Feudal military government created by the Shoguns, called the Shogunate. Still even with the military government in power her work has never been unappreciated. Although original manuscripts were lost, there are manuscripts of Genji that are believed to be 12th century copies.

In women’s studies and in studies of literature, Lady Murasaki is a standout and interesting figure. She clearly lived a nontraditional life. Like Jane Austen hiding her work under a blotter when people visited, Lady Murasaki hid her superior education and her knowledge of Chinese so as not to be considered unladylike. An interesting look at her life is the 2000 work The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby, the first American woman to become a geisha. This is a fictionalized account of the diaries that Lady Murasaki kept, but were never found. You can also find many modern translations of The Tale of Genji.

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