Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Lady Murasaki Shikiba

by | October 19, 2012 | 4 comments

Lady Murasaki Shikiba

(c. 973 to unknown)

by Anna Kathryn Lanier 


THE TALE OF GENJI, a novel about the life and loves of the fictional “Shining Prince Genji,” is considered the first novel ever written.  Penned more than a thousand years ago, it is even more inspiring to know it was written by a woman in a society who repressed the fairer sex. In fact, we do not even know her real name, because, as a daughter, it was never recorded.  Instead, we celebrate this remarkable woman by her pseudonym, Murasaki Shikibu.  Murasaki is the name of a flower and also the heroine of her novel.  Shikibu means “Bureau of Ceremonial,” the post her father held.

Born about 973 in Kyoto, Japan, Murasaki was the daughter of a classical scholar, minor member of the nobility and provincial governor. In a period of Japanese history when the language of business and government was Chinese, and only taught to men, Muraskai learned it by listening in as her father taught her brother the language.  She learned it better than her brother and was soon translating the more difficult passages for him.  Her father, while lamenting she had not been born a son, nonetheless educated her in secret.

Following tradition, she married in her early twenties and had a daughter, Daini no Sanmi, who became a distinguished poet herself.  Murasaki’s husband died about two years into their marriage, and she was called to be a lady-in-waiting for Empress Shoski (or Akiko), Emperor Ichijo’s consort, most likely because of her intelligence and writing talents.

Once at the palace, Murasaki kept a diary on the intrigues of the court.  She loosely based her novel on her jottings of the backstabbing, cutthroat, daily activities of the upper class. THE TALE OF GENJI is a mere fifty-four chapter novel and twice the length of WAR AND PEACE.   It was most likely written for women and would have been read aloud to the cloistered women in the palace. 

Murasaki vividly brings to life the prince and cloistered women of the court. The action of the novel provides drama, romance and plot twists, over 400 characters and covers four generations of Genji’s family.  And it has survived for a thousand years. 

Murasaki Shikibu is known as “the scholar of moods” and is considered one of the greatest writers of Japanese literature. Exactly what happened to Murasaki after she wrote her novel is unknown.  One speculation is that she retired to a convent when Emperor Ichijo died.  The time and place of her death is not known.  Years of her death range from 1014, 1025 and 1041 (perhaps this is a typo of 1014)….but her date of death is not all that important. What is important is what Murasaki did when she was alive. 

 THE TALE OF GENJI is still today required reading for school children in Japan.

Want to read THE TALE OF GENJI?  Barnes and Noble has it HERE.

 References and further reading: 

LADIES FIRST: History’s Greatest Female Trailblazers, Winners and Mavericks by Lynn Santa






Anna Kathryn Lanier



  1. Caroline Clemmons

    Wonderful post, Anna Kathryn. I had no idea women had been writing novels so long.

  2. Calisa Rhose

    Wonderful post, Kathryn. I tried your link to her book and it didn’t work. I’ll search it out later. Thanks!

    • Anna Kathryn Lanier

      Calisa, sorry about that. I fixed the link.



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