The Groundbreaking Life of Murasaki Shikibu – Feminist Frequency

The Groundbreaking Life of Murasaki Shikibu

#Ordinary WomenOctober 12, 2016

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Anita Sarkeesian

Executive Director and Buffy the Vampire Slayer Enthusiast

In 10th century Japan, literary prodigy Murasaki Shikibu wrote the first modern novel at a time when women’s names were rarely even written down.

Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History explores the lives and accomplishments of fascinating women who defied gender stereotypes but often found themselves pushed to the sidelines or erased from history books that weren’t ready to acknowledge them. This series is made possible by generous donations to our Seed & Spark crowdfunding campaign for the project.

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In 10th century Japan, literary prodigy Murasaki Shikibu wrote the first modern novel at a time when women’s names were rarely even written down.

Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History explores the lives and accomplishments of fascinating women who defied gender stereotypes but often found themselves pushed to the sidelines or erased from history books that weren’t ready to acknowledge them. This series is made possible by generous donations to our Seed & Spark crowdfunding campaign for the project.

← Series Archive

Transcript

If you’ve ever fallen in love with a novel, you know the moment: you look at the clock, it’s one in the morning and you still can’t put the book down. You’ve been pulled into a world conjured from someone else’s imagination, where the thoughts and feelings of the people on the pages are as real as your own.

It’s hard to imagine a time before novels as we know them existed, but there was, in fact, a first novel. And if we want to understand how it came into being, we have to look more than a thousand years into the past, at the writing desk of one woman.

Her name was Murasaki Shikibu, or at least that’s the only name we can give her now. Born into an aristocratic Japanese family sometime in the 970s, she lived at a time when the names of women were rarely recorded. Instead, well-born women like Murasaki were given nicknames, usually related to the rank or position of a close male relative.

She lived in an intensely cloistered world where women were constantly shielded from public view by screens or curtains. Sometimes it was easier to identify an aristocratic woman by the distinctive pattern of a protruding sleeve than by her face.

Despite the often suffocating limitations on their lives, women like Murasaki were educated and expected to be highly literate. The granddaughter of a famous poet and the daughter of a scholar, Murasaki became conversant in Japanese and Chinese literature so quickly she was considered something of a literary prodigy.

In her diary, Murasaki recorded her father’s reaction when he realized exactly how talented she was. He said “Just my luck! What a pity she was not born a man!”

In her early twenties she married a man old enough to be her father who died only two years later– but not before they had a daughter. Instead of marrying again, the gifted young widow and mother began work on The Tale of Genji, an intricate saga of romance and intrigue in the life of an imperial prince.

The Tale of Genji is often considered the first modern novel because Murasaki offered readers not just a chronicle of events, but deep psychological insight into the characters and their inner lives. Her story made history because it was more than just a story: It was a complex literary portrait of what it means to be human.

Although the hero of the Tale of Genji is a man, named Prince Genji, Shikibu filled her novel with multifaceted female characters who provided a rare glimpse into how it felt to be a woman in her world. As Virginia Woolf later wrote, when Murasaki set out to illuminate the complicated life of the prince “she naturally chose the medium of other women’s minds.”

The Tale of Genji earned Murasaki a permanent place in literary history. It may also have helped her secure a position at the Imperial Court where she became an attendant and occasional tutor to the Empress Shoshi. Murasaki became quite close with the Empress and even secretly taught her Chinese — a language only men were supposed to learn.

Although it was a comfortable life Murasaki was often lonely and her literary fame made her the target of court gossips who called her pretentious, arrogant and unfriendly– complaints often heard about successful women even today.

No one is sure exactly when Murasaki died, but the legacy she left behind changed Japanese literature forever, and left a mark on the broader world of fiction that can never be erased. Throughout history, “great novels” have traditionally been considered the domain of male writers, while tales of romance — especially those written by women— are often dismissed as frivolous or inferior.

But history itself tells a very different story. Not only was the first novel a romance, but it was one of the greatest literary masterpieces in human history, and it was written by a woman. Because she dared to imagine the world in ways that no one had before, we can still hear her voice echoing through time more than a thousand years later, daring us to imagine worlds of our own.