Murasaki Shikibu, or Lady Murasaki to you and I, is not, as I originally thought, a branch of the mushroom family tree. She was in fact one of the world’s earliest novelists on record, and perhaps, one of the most influential women of her time. As a literature student, she also happens to be my Woman Crush Wednesday!
Sounds boring, yes? WRONG! She was an absolutely brilliant lady who inspired generations upon generations and that is nothing to be sniffed at.
Living in the Heian period of Japan (744-1192) Lady Murasaki was a woman alive in a high point of Japanese aristocratic culture where literary talent was demonstrated in the Court. Which is exactly where our Lady got her gifts noticed and her words of wisdom published to the world.
Her father once said to her; ‘if only you were a boy, how happy I’d be!’
Not something we all want to hear from our parent ideally. Nevertheless, her father permitted her to master the art of the Chinese language, which was allegedly only for men. Pfft. I feel that in light of a father’s love for a talented young lady, he was proud of her regardless of her gender. He kept her education a secret; she was breaking social conventions after all, but this defiance allowed her to grow into a truly prominent novelist and woman.
In addition to her published works she kept a detailed diary of her days at Court. Now, a diary, to you and I, is what we all kept during our teen angst to spill all our secrets into, just like Ginny in Harry Potter. Except with much less dark magic and giant snakes involved. Lady Murasaki wrote about how she detested the frivolities of Courtly life, particularly remarking upon a picture competition as a ridiculous madness that gripped the whole nation to pointlessly find the ‘prettiest method of mounting paper scrolls.’
Brutal. Although, she was an opinionated lady who held her own and this is what we like to see.
Her novel, The Tale of Genji, otherwise known as The Shining Prince, is often regarded as the earliest novel in modern human history. It tells the story of Prince Genji’s search for love, a plight we all know and have suffered from. However, her twist on the tale of man’s search for women is an inspiration to us all.
Prince Genji is no ordinary male protagonist; he understands the inner beauty of each of his lovers. A concept that people we all know have failed to grasp and perhaps should, because it melts my heart knowing a fictional character can be so sensitive and loving. The novel is no commonplace book; through combining her knowledge of Chinese and Japanese culture and literature, our Lady created a novel that transcended its time and genre to become something utterly modern. She developed literary techniques that weren’t adopted by the masses for hundreds of years. She is basically, a literary legend.
Not everybody shared that opinion, however, as many Japanese royalist men snubbed her work and questioned her knowledge in the world of love and relationships. Admittedly, she was married off to a distant relative who died three years after said wedding ceremony so perhaps their comments had some ground to them, but Murasaki’s response to these criticisms deserves a hearty round of applause.
Presented with a plum blossom, she was told: ‘What with these ardent tales of love, little can I think that men have passed you by, as they might this plum-tree’s sour fruit’
Or in other words: You are basically as appealing to men as this fruit nobody actually likes. So what do you know about love you sour plum?
Pretty rude, right?
However Lady Murasaski proudly retorted, ‘If no man has tasted, who can say if the fruit is sour, or if the writer of these tales herself has known such love?’
Or in 21st Century terms: How on earth would you know? Have you or anyone else experienced the sour plums of my love? No. No plums, no opinion.
What. A. Hero(ine).
She didn’t stand for being told she had no reason to write about love and her concepts of relationships are further advanced than many of the people that wrote about them for the next thousand years and to be honest most people’s ex-boyfriends.
She may sound like she belongs to the fungi family and I know that literature doesn’t enthral everyone the way it doe me. However Lady Murasaki managed to make a powerful human statement through her written words. Her novel has been translated and discussed countless times since its publication, some of us can only dream of leaving such a massive mark on the world.
So here’s to my #womancrushwednesday Lady Murasaki Shikibu: a woman who claimed her own literary canon hundreds of years before women were truly respected in the arts of literature!
She will never know how inspirational she truly was and still is, but it was people like her who helped pave the way for women in literature, and for that, we are eternally grateful.