It is difficult to write a biography of a woman whose birth and death are unrecorded and whose very name is unknown - not that people have let this stop them!
The woman known to us as Murasaki Shikibu was probably born in the early to mid 970s AD. She was the daughter of a lower level official Fujiwara no Tametoki who had literary pretensions instead of rank or connections. As a child she was permitted to study Chinese literature along with her brother, with such success that her father openly mourned she had not been born a boy. This 'masculine' learning was (of course) perfectly useless to Murasaki and a source of embarrassment as it labelled her an unfeminine bluestocking.
Late in the 990s Murasaki became one of the several wives of her second cousin Fujiwara no Nobutaka, an official of the Ministry of Ceremonials and man about the Court. She had at least one child, a daughter named Katako who became a noted writer like her mother (under the name Daini no Sanmi), but was widowed after only two or three years of marriage. It's known, because Murasaki herself tells us so in her 'Diary', that she was depressed and unhappy after her husband's death but whether she was drowned in grief or only depressed over the loss of his economic and social support she doesn't say. She began her service at court in the entourage of the Empress Akiko in the early years of the 11th c.
Murasaki portrays herself as melancholic and reserved and feeling out of place and unhappy at court - though she admits she is no happier at home. Her 'Diary' is an autobiographical fragment covering perhaps two of the years she spent at court. In it she recounts exchanges poetic and otherwise with the Empress's father, the chief minister Michinaga - which has suggested an affair between them to some readers, and sexual harassment on Michinaga's part to others. Incidentally, Michinaga's court diary gives the names of several ladies-in-waiting at the time and some scholars have suggested that Murasaki and one lady named "Fujiwara no Takako" are one and the same. note
The date of Murasaki's death is as uncertain as all the others, some experts placing it as late as 1025 and others as early as 1014. She is remembered chiefly as the author of The Tale of Genji, and is also credited with the aforesaid Diary and a collection of poems.
- All Women Are Prudes: Certainly NOT a characteristic of Court Ladies but Murasaki has this reputation. However, judging by her surviving poetry she had at least three lovers including her husband - and possibly Michinaga.
- Annoying Younger Sibling: Murasaki's kid brother Nobunori was a bitter disappointment to both her and their father, performing his court duties lackadaisically and being conspicuously absent the one time she really needed him.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Did Murasaki have this with Michinaga? She constantly complains about his attentions in her Diary, on the other hand she also records a rather bitchy exchange with Michinaga's wife suggesting jealousy. And 'complaining' about Michinaga also allows Murasaki to boast about having caught the eye of the most powerful man in Japan.
- Deadly Decadent Court: Murasaki is painfully aware of this side of courtly life and doesn't like it one bit.
- The Eeyore: Murasaki portrays herself as a real Gloomy Gus in her Diary attributing 'a life full of grief' even to the ducks playing on the lake outside the palace. Now that's depressed!
- Lady-in-Waiting: Murasaki was a member of the Empress Akiko's private retinue, rather than holding an official court post as 'Handmaiden'.
- Taking the Veil: There is a longstanding tradition that Murasaki ended her days as a nun.
- The Rival: Murasaki and Sei Shonagon (author of The Pillow Book) were in the service of rival empresses and don't seem to have liked each other one bit. Sei made unkind remarks about Murasaki's late husband and her brother in The Pillow Book but Murasaki went right for the jugular in her Diary heaping scorn on Sei's so-called learning, on her literary talent and on her scandalous morals - not that there was anything unusual about the last.