World’s first novel written by a woman

In celebration of International Women’s Day 2012 I’d like to honour Murasaki Shikibu, the woman believed to be the world’s first novelist.

Murasaki Shikibu wrote her novel The Tale of Genji in the eleventh century between about 1000-1012. To put this in perspective, the earliest of contenders for the first novel written in English, Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, was written around 1470 and published in 1485.

The Tale of Genji is a romance written over a decade in 54 chapters; the English translation runs to 1,100 pages. Prior to The Tale of Genji, most prose was limited to folk tales and poems.  Murasaki Shikibu’s work was something new, with a complex plot and character development.

Murasaki Shikibu — ‘Lady Murasaki’ — is believed to be a nickname. The author’s real name might have been Fujiwara Takako but we’ll never know for sure as it was not the custom at the time to record women’s names. Women were also traditionally excluded from learning to write Chinese, then the language of government in Japan. But Lady Murasaki’s scholar father allowed her to learn alongside her brother, whom she outperformed, prompting her father to lament, “If only you were a boy, how happy I should be!” (see The Women in World History).

Married in her early twenties to a much older relative, Lady Murasaki gave birth to her only child, a daughter, and was widowed within three years. It is believed she was subsequently brought to the imperial Japanese court as a lady-in-waiting on the basis of her intellect and talent for writing.

During the Heian period (794-1185) when The Tale of Genji was written and set, an upper class woman was seldom seen by men beyond her family and husband, and husbands and wives maintained separate households. According to the Tale of Genji website, women ‘spent much of their adult life in dark rooms, hidden behind an array of screens blinds and fans…[To] avoid the tedium of life at home, the only real option was to enter court service as a lady-in-waiting for the empress or another royal concubine. Ladies-in-waiting were free to pursue amorous liaisons with the gentlemen at court, which provides the setting for much of the first part of the Tale.’

Floor-length hair, whitened skin and blackened teeth were the height of fashion, but a woman’s dress sense, calligraphy skills and talent for poetry were what made her most attractive as a lover.

Merry-go-round and swings I guess.

The Tale of Genji was inspired by Lady Murasaki’s experience of court life. The central character Genji, the ‘shining prince’, is perhaps the author’s idea of a perfect man, one who always sends a ‘morning after’ poem and who continues to care for his former lovers even after the passion has died. In addition to romance, there is travel, tragedy and encounters with the supernatural. The novel was designed to be read aloud and was hugely popular in its day, shot through with observations about the pursuits and attitudes of the aristocratic classes.

It seems that from the first, women wrote to improve their world and read to escape from it.

I chanced upon Murasaki Shikibu credited as ‘The First Novelist’ in of all things the children’s encyclopaedia my six-year-old daughter was leafing through over breakfast this morning. With all the depressing talk of VIDA statistics and gender bias in literary reviews and awards, I’m thrilled to think the world owes the modern novel form to a Japanese woman.

The Tale of Genji is available on Amazon.

About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Her latest novel is, Mother of Pearl, published by Transit Lounge. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing, is former CEO of Writers Victoria, and currently works as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.
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