The Tale of Genji


Did you know that the first novel to be ever recorded was also written by a woman?

If Christine de Pizan is often considered the first female professional writer of the European Middle Ages, writing at the turn of the 15th century, the first female novelist was also the first novelist of the world, ever: Murasaki Shikibu, lady-in-waiting at the Heian court, who wrote her Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) at the beginning of the 11th century. Murasaki's own original manuscript, sadly, has long been lost or destroyed; the oldest surviving copy of the novel, however, was discovered just yesterday!

Approximately 800 years old, a copy of the fifth (of 54) chapter of The Tale of Genji was discovered in Tokyo at the home of Motofuyu Okouchi, a descendant of an ancient samurai clan. Despite still not being written by Murasaki herself, who died around 1030, the manuscript belongs to another great Japanese writer and calligrapher,  12th/13th-century Fujiwara no Teika, who had also transcribed four other previously-found manuscripts of the same work.

Chapter Five of The Tale of Genji represents a turning point in the novel, with the protagonist, Prince Genji, meeting his future wife Murasaki (just a child at the time). The illustration above, an album leaf from 1510, also depicts the scene of their meeting.

"Wakamurasaki (Young Murasaki)", illustration by Tosa Mitsunobu, from chapter 5 of the Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari), ca. 1510, object number 1985.352.5.A, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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