Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary

By Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves et al. | Go to book overview

MURASAKI SHIKIBU
(ca. 973-ca. 1030)

Japan
Author

Murasaki Shikibu is the name traditionally given to the female author of The Tale of Genji, one of the classics of Japanese literature. Written in the early eleventh century, its status in Japanese literary history and culture is analogous to that of Homer's and Vergil's epics or Shakespeare's plays in many Western countries. Today, most Japanese have read at least part of the Genji and are familiar with its main events and characters, and it remains an important source, as it has for many centuries, of literary allusions, plots, and imagery. It is probably the work of Japanese literature best known to non-Japanese readers. A recent translation into modern English by Edward Seidensticker has made the Genji more accessible to an English-speaking public. The Genji is a monogatari, loosely translated in English as narrative or tale, with a romance structure and many features of a novel. It includes more than prose; there are also numerous poems throughout the work, composed by various characters. In later centuries, readers copying the tale onto scrolls for their own use often drew illustrations to accompany the narrative, and thus surviving scrolls have created a visual as well as verbal dimension to the Genji. In addition to the tale, we also have the author's diary (known as The Murasaki Shikibu Diary) covering the years 1008 to 1010 and her poetic memoirs.

About the author, we have little information, not even her actual name. It was not considered polite to refer publicly by name to court women other than consorts or concubines. Shikibu refers to a title (Bureau of Ceremonial) held for a time by her father, Tametoki. Murasaki is a principal female character in the tale who marries Genji and experiences both his deep love and his infidelities; Genji dies soon after Murasaki. According to her diary, a male courtier once jokingly referred to the author as Murasaki. His remark both links the author with her tale and indicates that the Genji was known in court circles during her time there.

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