In 11th Century Japan, a woman named Murasaki Shikibu or ‘Lady Murasaki’ (which is believed to be a nickname) wrote what is considered to be the world’s first novel.
During this time in Japan, women were tradition- ally excluded from learning to write Chinese. Normally, only men wrote in Chinese, since it was a sign of superior status, while women were confined to Japanese. But thankfully, Lady Murasaki’s father, a provincial governor, passed on his deep knowledge of Chinese literature to his bookish daughter and allowed her to learn alongside her brother.
It is believed that after the death of her husband, Lady Murasaki was summoned to the Japanese imperial court as a lady-in-waiting based on her intellect and talent for writing. It was during her time at court that Lady Murasaki began spinning a tale in installments, resulting in “The Tale of Genji”.
“The Tale of Genji”, which was designed to be read aloud, describes life in the Japanese imperial court, its etiquette and intrigues, and, above all, Genji’s love life, and his subsequent sadness over it. It is also a very long book, after translation, “The Tale of Genji, is more than thirteen hundred pages and made up of fifty-four loosely connected chapters that span the stories of four generations.
By modern standards, Murasaki’s novel is problematic — the plot reads a bit like Game of Thrones, but without any of the fantasy, or murder. The characters are also difficult to keep track of since using anyone’s actual name was seen as incredibly vulgar at court; to get around this, Murasaki refers to characters euphemistically, with names like Third Princess.
But besides the problems “The Tale of Genji” was also revolutionary in its time. Murasaki’s writing was one of the first major instances of long-form, (relatively) realistic fiction.
The “Tale Of Genji” is now seen as one of the building blocks of world literature, but sadly the author herself remains obscure, seriously under- represented.