‘The Diary of Lady Murasaki’ by Murasaki Shikibu (Review)

Our previous Women in Translation Month post saw us take a trip into the (Spanish) past, but that’s nothing compared to today’s adventure.  This time, we’re really getting into time travel, with our journey taking us back a good thousand years to stay a while at the Japanese imperial court.  As you might expect, it’s very much a man’s world, but our guide to life in the Heian Era is a woman – and one you may just have heard of…

The undisputed classic work of Japanese literature is Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, and in The Diary of Lady Murasaki (translated and introduced by Richard Bowring, published by Penguin Classics) we are presented with a tantalising glimpse of the woman herself.  A short work of about sixty pages, the diary sees the writer describing some important events in court life at the start of the eleventh century while also casting a critical eye upon the people around her, providing the reader with a fascinating view of contemporary court life.

The diary itself is supplemented by a few documents from the time, providing alternative (duller) accounts of the same events, as well as Bowring’s excellent introduction (for once, I’d definitely advise reading it before the main text).  He discusses the structure and dating of the work, exploring the theory that what has reached us is a series of fragments of the original, and explains how the Heian Era saw an explosion of cultural output as the Japanese succeeded in absorbing Chinese influences to create their own style (there are parallels here to the work done in the Meiji Era based on Western influences).  There are even diagrams of the palace rooms in the appendix to enable us to envision the scenes.

For the most part, the work itself is, well, pretty much like a diary, describing the events surrounding the birth of Prince Atsuhira to Empress Shōshi in 1009.  As Bowring explains, this was a crucial event as it allowed the Empress’s father to consolidate his power over the court, and the country, so all possible measures were undertaken.  This was a very public affair, with the absence of any real medical practitioners made up for by the hosts of priests in attendance:

Loud spells were cast in order to transfer evil influences.  All the priests who had been at the mansion for the last few months were present, of course, but they were now joined by everyone worthy of the name exorcist who had been ordered down from the major temples. As they crowded in, you could imagine every Buddha in the universe flying down to respond.
p.8 (Penguin Classics, 2005)

Despite this intimidating environment, the Empress successfully gives birth, and the happy event is then celebrated by a series of ceremonies, rituals, feasts and dances.

Murasaki is present at most of these events, and her position in the background gives her ample opportunity to soak in the details.  She has an eye for description, providing detailed images of the elaborate clothing worn by the more important court personalities, and is always generous with her praise of style and beauty.  However, when it comes to people’s behaviour, she’s far more critical.  She laments the stiffness shown by her fellow courtiers when men come to call (some are unable to even bring themselves to speak) while (paradoxically) showing frustration at the frivolity they show at other times.

Many of these public events are dominated by the men of the court, but the writer provides a fascinating insight into how women of the period experienced this life.  She describes the screens and blinds they spend their lives behind and alludes to the attentions women are unable to avoid (familiar to anyone who has sampled her fiction).  One example of her female view comes when several noblemen provide dancers for one of the ceremonies:

As they finally stepped forward together I was, for some reason, overcome with emotion and felt dreadfully sorry for them.  Not that I was closely tied to any one of them in particular, mind you.  Was it because their patrons were so convinced that their girls were best that, look as I would, I found it difficult to distinguish between them? (p.40)

Murasaki provides a welcome corrective to the prevalent male gaze, but as she points out, women didn’t have many options.  Either they could marry (and be shut up and abandoned by their husband), join the court (where their bodies would be at the mercy of insistent lovers), or shave their heads and take themselves off to a temple…

Unsurprisingly, then, one of the pervading emotions behind the diary is a sense of sadness.  Murasaki was in her thirties at the time of writing, and in many places there’s a focus on ageing, in both herself and others.  Lonely and unfulfilled, she frequently laments the lack of purpose in her life; even when ‘the Tale’, as she calls it, is mentioned, it’s more of an idle amusement than a life’s work.  At this late stage of her life (although we cannot be sure of exactly when she died), reading and writing no longer appear to be as important to her as they once were.

In regard to literature, one nice subtext to the diary is the comparisons that crop up with another classic work from the Heian Era.  For the attentive reader, this begins with the very first line:

As autumn advances, the Tsuchimikado mansion looks unutterably beautiful.  Every branch on every tree by the lake and each tuft of grass on the banks of the stream takes on its own particular colour, which is then intensified by the evening light. (p.3)

For anyone who has read both books, it’s hard not to be reminded of The Pillow Book and its first line about spring.  In fact, Sei Shōnagon herself gets a mention here, and it’s not flattering:

Sei Shōnagon, for example, was dreadfully conceited.  She thought herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters; but if you examined them closely, they left a great deal to be desired.  Those who think of themselves as being superior to everyone else in this way will inevitably suffer and come to a bad end, and people who have become so precious that they go out of their way to try and be sensitive in the most unpromising situations, trying to capture every moment of interest, however slight, are bound to look ridiculous and superficial.  How can the future turn out well for them? (p.54)

As has been mentioned elsewhere, there are echoes here of other literary slights (one that comes to mind is Charlotte Brontë’s dismissive comments about Jane Austen).  Whether they’re based in fact or merely the words of a jealous rival, that’s quite a burn…

Quite apart from these intriguing undercurrents, though, The Diary of Lady Murasaki is an excellent read.  The book is a series of short prose pieces, and unlike some classic Japanese literature, it’s always enjoyable (The Pillow Book, for example, can often be rather repetitive and frustrating).  Having recently flicked through Donald Keene’s Anthology of Japanese Literature, I was also able to compare Bowring’s translation with some extracts from a much older version. The anthology pieces were far more stilted and awkward, and there were also several glaring differences between the texts, even as to who is actually speaking or acting.  While I won’t be glancing at the original any time soon, I suspect that Bowring’s version has benefited from decades of research (and better writing style…).  It just goes to show that revisiting translations can be of great use.

It won’t be for everyone, but those with an interest in Japanese literature and history will find much to enjoy in The Diary of Lady Murasaki.  It’s a fascinating insight into a world long gone and perhaps at its best when it moves away from simple description of court life.  The work’s strength is the clarity of the writer’s insights into the behaviour of those around her and the essential emptiness of her own life.  However, it’s a tad ironic that she felt she felt she had achieved nothing with her days; one thousand years on, we know how wrong she was…

6 thoughts on “‘The Diary of Lady Murasaki’ by Murasaki Shikibu (Review)

  1. Is it really that short? For some reason, I didn’t remember it being so short, but perhaps there was a lot of additional historical detail crammed in. I thought there was some controversy whether it was indeed the same Murasaki Shikibu that wrote Genji, or whether it was her daughter or mother… Regardless, I hope she was proud of her work (and perhaps her remarks about Sei Shonagon indicate that she appreciated her own work more), even if she felt that reading and writing were no longer so important to her.


    1. Marina Sofia – Definitely not very long (perhaps you read it in Japanese and it seemed longer!). It’s an excellent little book, though, and well worth the effort 🙂


      1. Ha, ha, I certainly had that feeling with all the books I read in Japanese: interminable, what with having to look up every fifth kanji in the dictionary! Meanwhile, the Italian and Spanish students would laugh at us as they sped through their assigned books…


  2. I love that she calls Sei Shonogan concieted. That is priceless. I made it about 1/3 of the way through Tale of Genji; I loved it but it does go on. The Pillow Book remains one of my all time favorite reads. To be honest, I found Genji to be the repetitive one. Still, this sounds like interesting reading. I will look for it. Thanks for this review.


    1. James – I’m afraid I couldn’t agree less with your view of the two books – still, life would be boring if we all had the same thoughts 😉


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