Single Mother and Widow Writes the World's First Novel and No One Notices

By Courtney Hudak

Had she been a man, Lady Shikibu Murasaki would now be regularly studied in schools throughout the world. In Japan, she's known as the writer of what may be the single greatest work of Japanese literature ever, "The Tale of Genji." Yet around the rest of the world, while Coleridge and Chaucer are discussed at the dinner tables of literarily inclined grad students, Murasaki's name is still relatively unknown. Had she been born a boy, maybe things would be different. Maybe she would be hailed around the world as
the brilliant poet and novelist she was, someone comparable to Dante or Homer. Shikibu Murasaki changed the look of literature. Had she been a man, maybe today we would all know her name.

But she was a woman. As a result, she spent her entire life struggling against tradition. Stone by stone, she quietly worked little holes in the walls that society placed in front of her, and then slipped through. It wasn't proper for a girl to be smart, so Murasaki fought for every detail of her education. Her father refused to let her study formally, though he did eventually consent to let her look over her brother's books when he was done with them. Murasaki gained most of her education this way, learning far more than was traditionally acceptable. She learned at an early age to conceal her knowledge. In the second century Japan, it was considered unfeminine for a woman to know the things that Murasaki knew.

She was properly married off before she was twenty, but her husband died shortly after the birth of their only daughter. Their were few acceptable occupations for a young widow at the time, so Murasaki's father arranged for her to become an attendant at the court of the Empress Akiko. It turned out that palace life suited her. She secretly tutored the Empress in Chinese (though women were not supposed to know Chinese), and she kept a secret diary. Her diary holds nearly everything we know about Murasaki today.
Her writing is witty, sometimes sarcastic, and often poetically beautiful.She describes her feelings, (like her frustration with the Empress' other attendants who mistook her quietness for snobbishness), as well as details of daily court life. She was well known at court for her ability to create beautiful poetry off the top of her head. Her diary includes accounts of her frequent poetic jousts with the Emperor himself. And when the Empress grew tired of the traditional stories being retold again and again, it was Murasaki she asked to create something new. Many believe that it was from this assignment that the "The Tale of Genji" was born. The story of the life and loves of a young man named Genji, Murasaki's novel is also a beautiful and intricate tale of Japanese court life a thousand years ago.

Lady Murasaki had it better than a lot of women in early Japan. As a woman of high social standing she was expected to be educated in certain, small things. She learned to read, and was allowed to have her poetry. She was given a little freedom, and given opportunities that poor women simply didn't have. If Murasaki had been poor, "The Tale of Genji" would have been left for someone else to tell.

Brilliant women throughout history have been squashed by the customs of their times. It's about time the modern world started giving them their due.

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