Tale as Old as Time

Written by Fadumo Abdulqadir

Unbeknownst to many, the world’s first novel was actually written by a woman.

The Japanese masterpiece, The Tale of Genji follows the life, romance, trial and tribulations of Hikaru Genji, and was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at a Japanese Court. The Tale of Genji is one of the beloved and influential novels in Japan; it has inspired many adaptations including opera, film, and manga. It was translated into English in 1925 by Arthur Waley, 10 centuries after it was released and was reviewed by Virginia Woolf for British Vogue. 

Like her epic novel, Murasaki’s life was as complicated as that of Genji. Born around 970, life as a woman was quite suffocating. The women were expected to hide from society and were given nicknames based on the rank or position of close male relatives. Muraski was not her real name, and it was that off Genji’s great love, and Shikibu was her father’s position at the Bureau of Rites.

As her father was the Province Governor, he taught her Chinese, a language that was strictly reserved for the aristocratic males at that time. Having learned Chinese, it permitted her to keep up with any political development within the country.  She married at an early age to a man that was old enough to be her father, they had a daughter, but he died two years later. 

There is a debate regarding the nature of their relationship, some consider the union to be a happy one, and she was struck with grief after his death, throwing herself into her writing. Others, however, use her diary and poems to argue that she actually despised her husband.  It is unknown when she started writing the Tale of Genji, some speculate that she started writing the tale when she got married, nevertheless, there is agreement among scholars that Murasaki finished her novel after the death of her husband. 

Murasaki came from a humble beginning and probably was middle-ranked. As she was not aristocratic, that meant that she did not have access to the aristocratic court. But her literary prowess gave her direct access into the Empress’s Salon, and she became the lady-in-waiting for Empress Shoshi. Murasaki felt unhappy, and out of place at the court, but the scenery, the atmosphere, and her experience at the salon; inspired her to continue to write the tale. 

Murasaki wrote her masterpiece, which consisted of 750,000 words, through 54 chapters and was written in a script that is described as “onna-de or women’s hand.” Virginia Woolf envisioned Murasaki writing in her “silk dress and trouser with pictures before her and sound of poetry in her ear, with flowers in her garden and nightingales in the trees.” As we are unsure in what manner and where Murasaki wrote the Tale of Genji, the description of the scenery is quite fitting for the novel that she was writing.  

The super-long novel follows Prince Genji, the son of an Emperor, who leads a glamorous life at the Japanese court. Its chronologise his love affairs, and gives us an insight into how the aristocrat lived in Heian Japan (794-1185).  Genji was well-liked inside the court, as he had many female suitors, and he is described as handsome and charming. Yet, he was arrogant, selfish, and irresponsible. Murasaki created a well-loved character that was highly flawed.  The last 10 chapters shifts away from Genji, as it focuses on the adventures of Genji’s son.

The West only discovered the complex tale, a century after it was published. The novel became public knowledge in Britain after it was translated into English in the 20th century. Arthur Waley published the first translation in 1925, and it was a whopping six-volume edition. The status of the novel was further elevated after Virginia Woolf reviewed the first volume for British Vogue.

Her review was quite mixed, on the one hand, she praises Murasaki’s magical storytelling. On the other, her review had a hint of racism and orientalism about it. She is quick to remind us that while Murasaki can engage the reader, she is “not going to prove herself the peer of Tolstoy and Cervantes or those other great story-tellers of the Western world whose ancestors were fighting or squatting in their huts while she gazed from her lattices window at flowers.” 

Since Waley’s translation in 1925, many others have translated the work into English. The most contemporary translation is done by Dennis Washburn, who took 15 years to translate the complicated and remarkable work by Murasaki Shikibu.

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