Feature: Portrait – Murasaki Shikibu

First out in my series of women who should be more known is Lady Murasaki Shikibu – author of the earliest known modern novel, Genji Monogatari, or The Tale of Genji.


The Tale of Genji is not an unknown work by any stretch of the imagination – it is considered a Japanese classic and a very important work – but here in the western world few have heard of it and I think it is well worth noting that the first modern novelist in recorded history was a woman. The novel itself is divided into three parts, consisting of 54 chapters in total, and it curiously ends in mid-sentence (scholars have debated if the ending is actually the intended one or if there may be parts missing). Many different versions of the book exists, some with small differences and later editions with extra chapters written by other authors, but the original has unfortunately been lost to time.

Lady Murasaki was an author and poet born somewhere around the year 973 AD in Japan and in the early 11th century she entered the service of Empress Shōshi as a lady-in-waiting. Her true identity remains uncertain. There exists no portraits of her and no literary descriptions, and the name Murasaki comes from one of the major characters in her novel. It is believed she may have been Fujiwara Takako – a lady-in-waiting mentioned in a court diary in 1007, but no one knows for sure. She died somewhere between 1014 and 1025.

Besides The tale of Genji, she is attributed authorship of The Diary of Lady Murasaki – a diary written in three distinctly different parts and Poetic Memoirs, a collection of 128 poems.


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