Scene from the Tale of Genji, featuring a woman at a table.

Murasaki Shikibu, illustration by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617 – 1691), who did a series on The Tale of Genji. Public Domain.

Did you know the world’s first novel was written by a woman? The Tale of Genji was published in Japan around 1000 A.D. and written by Murasaki Shikibu. It is known that Murasaki Shikibu was a lady of the Heian Court and the daughter of a scholar, but her real name and exact date of birth is not known; Murasaki Shikibu is the name by which she would have been known in the court. After the deaths of her mother, older sister, and then later in life, the death of her husband, Murasaki began writing The Tale of Genji.
The story revolves around the character Genji, who is the son of an Emperor by one of his lower ranking wives. Genji’s life is driven by women; he takes liberties that are only pardoned because of his beauty and status, something that could be compared to a Jane Austen novel. It paints a picture of relationships between men and women of that time, and the unfortunate circumstances the women of the court could find themselves in.
Before this novel, Japanese literature consisted of collections of poems, prose of fairy tales, and a few memoirs. Murasaki broke new ground in producing a novel with character development and a complex plot, and in doing so caught the attention of her own Emperor, ending her days in a position serving the Empress. So we thank this lady of the court, who 1000 years ago found something that still interests the world today: the novel.”
-Emma Hatherall
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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