Murasaki Shikibu is the best known writer to emerge from Japan's glorious Heian period. Her novel, Genji Monogatari(The Tale of Genji) is considered to be one of the world's finest and earliest novels. Some argue that Murasaki is the world's first modern novelist.
Born into the Fujiwara faimily, her father was governor, and a well known scholar. As a very intelligent child, Shikibu learned much quicker than her brother. This caused her father to say If only you were a boy, how happy I should be!" He let her study with her brother, and even allowed her to learn some Chinese classics. This was considered improper for women at the time.
In her early twenties, Shikibu married a distant relative. She gave birth to her only daughter in AD 999. After her husband's death in AD 1001, the imperial family brought her into court. She was well aware of her writing abilites and mental brilliance.
Shikibu kept a diary for two years. The diary gives us vivid descriptions of court life, and insights as to what she thought. For example, she thought court life was frivolous in nature. She once described a picture competition there as a "moment in the history of our country when the whole energy of the nation seemed to be concentrated upon the search for the prettiest method of mounting paper scrolls!" She also went to great pains to hide her knowledge of Chinese, fearing the criticism of those who felt it to be unladylike to be happy reading this obscure language.
Shikibu may have begun The Tale of the Genji before she came to court. Yet much of it was written there, loosely based on her years as lady-in-waiting to the Empress Akiko. It is a very long novel about complications in the life of a fictitious prince called Genji. Like many of the court ladies, Shikibu was a master at observing the daily activities and attitudes of upper class society.
The tales of Prince Genji, known as "the Shining Prince," became popular from the moment of its release. It was meant to be read aloud, and the earliest Genji manuscript was lost. Luckily early 12th century Genji manuscript scrolls survived, and through the ages, the novel has been translated into many languages and been studied and discussed by many scholars.
Little is know about Lady Murasaki's later life. She may have retired from court to seek seclusion in a convent at about the age of fifty. Her writings suggest that at the end she sensed the violent changes that were coming to her rather decadent upper class life. In the distance, the sounds of provincial warriors rumbled - the samurai who in 1192 overthrew the power of the emperor and created a feudal military government headed by a shogun.