Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 830
Lamentably, little is known of the life of Murasaki Shikibu. Scholars generally date her birth to sometime in the mid-970’s, and guesses about the year of her death range between 1014 and about 1030. Even her real name is a mystery: “Murasaki” seems to have been taken from The Tale of Genji itself, where it is a name attached to one of the novel’s most affecting female characters, and “Shikibu” (meaning “Bureau of Rights”) is a court title that was borne by her father, Tametoki, a member of one of the lesser branches of the Fujiwara clan, which dominated court life and politics in Murasaki’s day. (Court women were frequently referred to publicly in this way, by titles derived from those of male relatives; it is not unusual for a woman’s real name not to have survived.)
On the evidence of her diary, Murasaki seems to have had a somewhat unusual upbringing from the perspective of the highest reaches of court society. She may have spent some time away from the imperial capital, Kyto, in the company of her father, who served as a provincial governor in the late 990’s; more important, she appears to have been unusually well educated in comparison with her peers, having acquired some knowledge of Chinese in addition to the facility in written Japanese that was expected of any aristocratic woman.
Murasaki appears to have married a nobleman and distant kinsman, Fujiwara no Nobutaka, in about 998. Nobutaka was nearly her father’s age, and Murasaki was by that time well past the customary age for marriage, facts that suggest she had been married briefly before. In any case, in 999 she and Nobutaka had a daughter, who would become a poet in her own right under the names Echigo no Ben and Daini no Sammi, and who lived at least until 1078. Nobutaka, however, died in 1001, and it was as a widow that Murasaki became a lady-in-waiting to the empress in 1005 or 1006.
Murasaki was far from being plebeian, but it is probable that neither her rank nor her family connections would alone have been sufficient to account for her being called into service at the court of the empress, who was doubly to be honored, not only as the emperor’s consort but also as the daughter of the most powerful noble in the land, Fujiwara no Michinaga. (One reason the birth of the crown prince, to which Murasaki devotes a great deal of space in her diary, was of such interest in the court was that it had the important consequence of tightening Michinaga’s control over the imperial line.) It seems likely, therefore, that it was Murasaki’s literary abilities that made her attractive as an attendant to the young empress, who inhabited a rarefied and stylized subculture that had made poetry a principal mode of public and private expression. Empress Fujiwara no Shshi was at the most eighteen years old when Murasaki joined her retinue, presumably in need of a mature mentor in literary matters. Most scholars agree that it may well have been the repute of The Tale of Genji itself, or some early portion of it, that originally gave Murasaki her entrée at court.
How long Murasaki stayed with the empress is a matter of scholarly debate. Emperor Ichij died in 1011, and his widow moved to different quarters, but Murasaki seems to have stayed with her at least until 1014, which is the earliest of several dates suggested by scholars for her death. Rather clear evidence exists that Murasaki was no longer in the empress’s retinue in 1031, but only shaky evidence supports any earlier date for her death.
While the lack of certain knowledge of the details of Murasaki’s life helps her modern critics avoid the pitfalls of an autobiographical interpretation of The Tale of Genji, it is otherwise a frustrating lacuna in the historical record. Working from a small number of surviving pre-Genji texts, it is possible to reconstruct something of the tradition of courtly romances within which Murasaki wrote. It is likewise possible to look at the much better-preserved poetic tradition of her day as a guide to the human and literary values of her world. Important as they are, however, such circumstantial approaches to the literary surroundings of The Tale of Genji cannot help with many questions that only a biography of Murasaki might answer: Are the people and settings of The Tale of Genji portraits from life or from imagination (and literary models) alone? In what ways might Murasaki’s understanding of her own life story have shaped the telling of her fiction? When and where were the pieces of the tale written and knit together? Why did her readers so identify the author with her fictional Murasaki that the name became her sobriquet? The lack of final answers may keep many doors closed, but it does not diminish Murasaki’s achievement, for The Tale of Genji is a work that can stand alone.