‘The Gossamer Years’ by the Mother of Michitsuna (Review)

It’s August again, and that means it’s time for Biblibio’s annual Women in Translation Month event!  I’ve taken part every year since the event began in 2014, but my effort has thus far consisted of reviews of whatever happened to be on my shelves.  This year is different, with a consistent theme for the whole of August – which happens to be female writers from Japan 🙂

Over the next month, I’ll be publishing a couple of posts each week looking at books by Japanese women, and while the location is a constant, the period certainly isn’t.  This will be a journey through time, starting with the oldest of the books and finishing with one that came out just a few years ago.  Let’s start off on our trip, then – and to do so, we need to head back more than a thousand years…

The Gossamer Years: The Diary of a Noblewoman of Heian Japan (Kagerō Nikki, translated by Edward Seidensticker) is a journal containing the thoughts of a married woman over the course of twenty years (between 954 and 974).  As was customary at the time, the woman’s given name was not used, and she has gone down in history simply as the Mother of Michitsuna.  While that may grate with modern readers, the name issue is trivial compared to what the writer had to go through in her married life.  You see, The Gossamer Years is not so much the story of a nameless mother as the trials of a neglected wife.

The first few pages describe a relentless courtship by Kaneie Fujiwara, a high-ranking nobleman who was to achieve lofty status at court.  While initially hesitant, she eventually gives in to his persistence, with a marriage taking place in 954.  However, these were rather different times, and marriage was not quite as it is today.  The writer was actually Kaneie’s second wife, and he didn’t stop there, taking on a number of short- and long-term mistresses as well.  It’s not long before she realises that her dream of a constant, faithful companion has disappeared.  Instead, she must decide whether she is prepared to wait patiently for nocturnal visits that will become increasingly few and far between.

The themes examined in The Gossamer Years make for an appropriate start to Women in Translation Month.  In this proto-feminist work, we are given a glimpse into life in Heian Japan, with a focus on the lives of women and the rampant inequality built into the society.  Having been sweet talked into marriage, the writer is constantly disappointed by her husband.  His continual promises of visits (married couples didn’t actually live together) come to nothing, and there are periods when contact is broken off entirely.  When you consider further humiliations, such as being sent sewing to do for her husband (and his other women…) and the agony of seeing his retainers parading down the street, only for the whole procession to simply walk on by, you can imagine what kind of life she must have led.

The journal, probably begun towards the end of the period covered, is the writer’s opportunity to reflect on her life and try to work out who is at fault:

One day, as I sat looking out at the rain, knowing that today there was less chance than usual of seeing him, my thoughts turned to the past.  The fault was not mine, there was something wanting in him.  It had seemed once that wind and rain could not keep him away.  Yet thinking back, I saw that I had never really been calm and sure of myself.  Perhaps, then, the fault was in fact mine: I had expected too much.  Ah, how unwise it had been to hope for what was not in the nature of things.
p.93 (Tuttle Press, 1964)

The relatively happy early years are behind her, and she knows that as she gets older, her situation can only deteriorate.  She will do her best to ensure that her son, Michitsuna, is acknowledged and assisted by his father, but her own happiness is probably over.

In a male-dominated society, the writer could almost be forgiven for simply lamenting her fate and settling in for a life of solitude, as several women described in The Tale of Genji do, but The Gossamer Years shows in several places that its creator had a mind of her own.  When angered, she had no hesitation in leaving her husband’s letters unanswered or refusing to acknowledge his visits, and one central part of the journal involves her taking matters into her own hands by deciding on a lengthy retreat outside the city, one scandalising the capital and leaving her husband open to ridicule…

The main interest of the book lies in following the writer’s life, but The Gossamer Years also provides a fascinating insight into the society around her.  This is a world of superstition, where daily life is hampered by constant penances and forbidden directions, forcing people to leave their homes or put off visits to relatives (and where the only treatment for serious illnesses is hardcore prayer sessions).  While the men of the court had work, of a sort, the main distraction for women was the writing and answering of poems, their dull lives broken up by the bright spots of festivals.  Just how restricted women were in these times is illustrated by a complaint the writer makes about the distance separating her from her father.  Seidensticker’s notes inform us that his property was a mere fifteen- to twenty-minute walk away…

It’s important to note, though, that unfortunate as she may sound, the writer was still fairly privileged, and never truly poor or neglected by family and friends.  She is actually part of a small elite (in fact, with family ties to Lady Sarashina, Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shōnagon, she’s the forerunner of quite a literary elite, too!).  She’s also not quite as perfect as she may sound, making a number of catty remarks about her rivals (and rejoicing in their woes), as well as lashing out at her husband even when his actions are unavoidable.  There’s a very interesting comparison, too, of her views on the woman her son is trying to court and her own youthful days.  It’s hard to read her scathing comments on the young woman’s reticence without thinking back to her own attempts to fob off her future husband.

With its copious end notes, a fair amount of repetition and the ubiquitous poems, The Gossamer Years won’t be for everyone, but overall it’s another wonderful glimpse of life in Heian Japan, not to mention an influence on the more famous writers mentioned above.  Quite apart from these cultural insights, though, the beauty of the book lies in its depiction of a woman prepared to go her own way in times of adversity:

At Uchidenoha a carriage was waiting, and we reached the city shortly before noon.  “You caused quite a stir,” my people said.  “We wondered whether you might have done something rash, maybe gone off for good this time.”
“Let them think what they like,” I answered.  “And am I still enough of a person to cause a stir?” (p.91)

It may make for unhappy reading at times, but when the journal eventually breaks off, twenty years after the first recorded events, what we have is a woman who has gradually come to terms with the way her life has unfolded.  In Heian Japan, that in itself was quite an achievement.


4 thoughts on “‘The Gossamer Years’ by the Mother of Michitsuna (Review)

  1. This sounds very familiar – and not just because of the similarities to other ladies of the Heian period. I think I probably read it at university. How did you find the translation? I know that Seidensticker is not your favourite translator of Genji. Was the poetry in couplets?


    1. Marina Sofia – It wasn’t too bad, a little dry in places. The poems were usually embedded in the text, but I must admit that I tend to glaze over a little whenever they break out the verse 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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