fact and fiction in

the tale of murasaki


How much of The Tale of Murasaki is taken from the existing fragment of Murasaki Shikibu's real diary (Murasaki Shikibu Nikki) and how much has been made up by Liza Dalby?

I tried to incorporate as many of Murasaki's observations as I could within my narrative, but in fact she wrote little about her life before she entered court service. At one point she mentions how her brother Nobunori had trouble learning Chinese as a child, but that she could memorize his lessons simply by listening in. Her father then commented that it was a shame she was not a boy for she was the one who had inherited the family talent for scholarship (page 10 in my tale). I worked this reminiscence into my description of her early years, but her life before court is largely created from my own imagination pegged upon historically verifiable events-natural ones like floods, outbreaks of pestilence, volcanic eruptions; and political ones recorded in historical sources.
   We know that Murasaki accompanied her father to his posting in Echizen because of the geographically specific poems she wrote while there. We also know, through the poems, that she had a prolonged and skittish courtship with Fujiwara
Nobutaka, whom she eventually married and who was the father of her only child, Katako. The historical diary begins with a description of the garden at the empress's mother Rinshi's mansion where Murasaki is among a group of ladies attending Empress Shôshi as she is about to give birth to her first child. This scene is the opening of my chapter Birth of a Prince on page 310, and the first two paragraphs come directly from the Diary.
   The next seven chapters through “The Close of the Year” are the most strongly shaped by the incidents, events, descriptions, and poems contained in Murasaki's actual Diary. I have rearranged them chronologically to correspond to a time sequence figured out through outside historical sources and guesswork. The Diary itself is jumbled and fragmented and cannot be read continuously as an ordinary narrative.

The following outline indicates exactly which material comes from the Diary and which was made up by me:

Birth of a Prince

    From the Diary:
Scene of noble visitors crowding to the mansion. Murasaki returning to her room and waking her friend Lady Saishô. Snotty poem about chrysanthemum dew from Rinshi. Testing fragrances with the empress. Shôshi's labor begins; priests and mediums chant.
    Liza Dalby:
The scene in which Murasaki meets directly with Michinaga is made up.
    From the Diary:
The appalling crush of people in attendance. The empress's prolonged labor, everyone's distress. Priests bring in implements for giving Shôshi the tonsure.
    Liza Dalby:
That Michinaga at this point began to chant the Lotus Sutra is not mentioned in the Diary, however it is described in A Tale of Flowering Fortunes, the Fujiwara family chronicles. Many details of Prince Atsuhira's birth contained in this work are drawn word for word from Murasaki's Diary. This is what led me to imagine that Michinaga ordered Murasaki to take notes on these events.
    From the Diary:
Distress that the afterbirth had not been delivered. Lady Kochûjô is embarrassed to run into former lover. Murasaki returns to quarters with Lady Saishô. Extravagant clothing brought to the ladies; everyone exhausted. Michinaga comes out to the garden in high spirits.
    Liza Dalby:
Michinaga reiterates his request to Murasaki that she take notes.

Full of Moonlight

    From the Diary:
Murasaki feels under the weather and ill at ease. Everything at the mansion had been decorated in white. Observations on the stark beauty of no color. Ceremonies to celebrate the Third Day after the birth. Ceremonies for the Fifth Day after the birth, including drinking, composing poems. Unfamiliar attendants emerge in the shadows of the moonlight. Murasaki attends the empress at night, allows priest a glimpse of her. Michinaga's son entices ladies out on a boat.
    Liza Dalby:
The scene of the eclipse does not occur in the Diary. All the imperial birth ceremonies can be precisely dated, and it turns out that there was a partial lunar eclipse on this evening when Murasaki composed her poem about the moon "cloudlessly clear unto eternity." I take the position that this was a case of poetic reality overshadowing celestial reality. This poem is not included in the Diary, but rather in Murasaki's Collected Poems.
    From the Diary:
Ladies from the palace arrive and are entertained by Michinaga. Seventh Day ceremonies; empress wan and listless. Eighth Day changing back to colors.


    Liza Dalby:
The incident with Lady Koma is mentioned in the Diary, but I have invented the meeting of Murasaki and her friend Lady Koshôshô to talk about it.
    From the Diary:
Murasaki is sitting with Lady Saishô when Michinaga's son wanders by to chat. Michinaga gets wet while fondling the baby prince. Preparations for the emperor's visit make Murasaki depressed. Poetry exchange with Lady Koshôshô.

Ten Thousand Years, A Thousand Autumns

    From the Diary:
Murasaki dawdles then has to rush to the ceremonies for the imperial visit. Depressed, she watches the events with Lady Koshôshô. Comments on what the ladies were wearing. Lady Saishô presents the imperial sword, then rejoins group. The baby prince cries and Kintô begins chanting poem "Ten Thousand Years, A Thousand Autumns." Lady Chikuzen reminisces and almost cries. Murasaki oversleeps the following day. Rinshi visits her new grandson. Sanenari and Tadanobu try to persuade Murasaki to let them in. She refuses.

Our Little Murasaki

    Liza Dalby:
Why was Murasaki so depressed at this point in her life? Many passages in the Diary record her feeling morose, but only hint at the reasons. She clearly felt that a number of the other ladies, particularly those of higher rank, were snobbish, and she was often painfully self-conscious. Was she going through early menopause? (In my reconstruction, she would have been 36 years old at this time.) Perhaps her thyroid was sluggish, or her serotonin uptake inhibited. We will never know. I have guessed that, whatever physiological factors may have been involved, the reason might have had something to do with her writing. Here I have created a scene where Michinaga thinks he can co-opt Genji into being his representative, and he presses Murasaki into service as the chronicler of his own glory. What writer wouldn't be depressed to have her work treated thus?
    From the Diary:
Description of the Fiftieth Day celebration, drunken carousing. The scene where Kintô looks in at the gathered ladies (page 342) and asks, "Is our little Murasaki here by any chance?" (This is usually pointed to as the origin of Murasaki's nickname, but I have taken the position that she probably would have received the name far earlier, when she entered court service.) Murasaki and Lady Saishô try to escape early but are caught by Michinaga.

Floating Sadly

    From the Diary:
Ladies copying a manuscript. (It is not stated that the work is the Tale of Genji, but most scholars assume it is. I have made it explicit.) The empress gives Murasaki the inkstone, and other ladies complain. Michinaga steals a draft of the Genji manuscript, and Murasaki worries about her reputation with an unrevised draft floating about. Murasaki watches waterfowl and gets even more depressed. Poems about pair of ducks, exchanged with Lady Dainagon. Murasaki receives disingenuous note from Rinshi. Ladies return to the palace on a cold evening; Muma is haughty to Murasaki. Sanenari and friend visit but leave because of the cold.

The Gosechi Dances

    From the Diary:
Scenes of the young Gosechi dancers arriving at the palace. Murasaki gets a headache and leaves. Later she is joined by two younger women. Michinaga finds them and orders them all back to the dances. Murasaki obsesses about the dancers' child attendants who also had to perform.
    Liza Dalby:
I extrapolate from Murasaki's evident concern for the young girls to thoughts of her own daughter Katako who would have been eight years old at this time.
    From the Diary:
Ladies in Empress Shôshi's entourage play a mean joke on Lady Sakyô.
    Liza Dalby:
Murasaki records this incident without comment, even though it does not present her in a very flattering light. I have chosen to have her dwell on it a bit more than she does in her Diary.
The scene where Murasaki's brother Nobunori bungles his official duties yet again, is not described in the Diary, but in the Shôyûki, a contemporary historical source. It occurred in the middle of the twelfth month of 1008.
    From the Diary:
Murasaki goes home and finds her kotos out of tune. She ruminates on reading Chinese and on people's natures.
    Liza Dalby:
This long section of self analysis comes directly from the Diary, but I give Murasaki a reason for her musings on what she perceives to be her failures-she ponders them in order to teach Katako not to make such mistakes in her own career. Murasaki never mentions her daughter in the Diary, but how could she not have had a strong influence on her? Murasaki's court career is characterized by her feeling beleaguered and out of place. She was never comfortable there. Katako, on the other hand, succeeded brilliantly. It seems reasonable that she was coached and prepared by her mother.

The Close of the Year

    From the Diary:
Murasaki returns to the palace feeling uneasy. Composes apprehensive poem about the year drawing to a close. She sits in her room fixing her makeup, and is joined by Ben no Naishi. Following the sound of screams, they discover two ladies stripped of their clothes. Nobunori disappoints again.
    Liza Dalby:
The Diary says that the New Year was off to an inauspicious start. I then insert a scene drawn from the heading to a poem in the Poetry Collection, about coming home from the palace on the third day of the new year and finding dust even in that short time away. At home, Murasaki lets her daughter try some cheese, among other presents she brings. We don't think of the Japanese as consuming dairy products before the nineteenth century (and even then, when first introduced, butter and cheese were mostly shunned as smelly stuff), but there was a limited amount of milk and a cheese-like product called so, that was taken more as a tonic than a common food, and mostly by the nobility, in Murasaki's day. The letter I have Murasaki write to Katako contains descriptions of dress given in the Diary for New Year festivities. The Diary contains a great deal of clothing description of this kind, which I have condensed.

The Small Pines in the Field

    From the Diary:
Ladies accompany the young princes to court; Empress Shôshi ill. Lady Saishô in charge of serving the imperial meal. Nobles show up at mansion; Michinaga complains to Murasaki about her father. Michinaga quotes poem: "and the small pines in the field."
    Liza Dalby:
Murasaki mentions that she happened to be in Lady Nakatsukasa's room, but I invented the meeting with Izumi Shikibu there. Murasaki does express the opinion later in the Diary that Izumi had a talent for extemporization but a weak grasp of the canon. This scene is intended to make that point. In my version of Murasaki's life, this would have been her thirty-seventh year, a fact that might explain some of her worries, although this is not stated explicitly in the Diary. There is no absolute consensus as to the exact date of Murasaki's birth, but my chronology follows the commonly accepted date of 973.
    From the Diary:
Murasaki returns to the Biwa Mansion before dawn for the prince's Fiftieth Day Celebration, and is joined by Lady Koshôshô. Michinaga makes suggestive remark about their sharing a room. Murasaki thinks her own outfit almost too fashionable. Incident where two ladies are criticized for a lack of taste in their color combinations. (It is not clear what precisely is being faulted here-the interpretation of the mistake is my own guess.) Murasaki joins Saishô and Dainagon for the musical entertainment. Minister of the Right Akimitsu makes a fool of himself. Michinaga gives Emperor Ichijô the famous flute named Hafutatsu.
This is where the historical record fragment of Murasaki's Diary ends.

The Virgin Priestess

This chapter contains a prominent chunk of the Diary in which Murasaki records glimpsing her brother's letter from a certain Lady Chûjo. Murasaki's distaste for the letter and the lady is evident, but leads into a rumination on the exquisite surroundings of the Virgin Priestess's household. This in turn leads to the section where Murasaki criticizes the ladies she knows in Empress Shôshi's employ. The observations here are Murasaki's, but I have put them in this order. Likewise, the sentiments in the letter to her father are from the Diary, and are even called the "Letter Section" from the tone of the writing. But nobody knows who the intended recipient was. I have divided this part into letters to her father and to her fictional friend Kerria Rose.
It seems clear that Murasaki was sinking deeper into the kind of melancholia that had plagued her earlier in her life. Anxiety, insomnia, feelings of persecution, low self-esteem, all point to a condition familiar to twentieth-century readers. On page 382 I added a scene in which she blames Izumi Shikibu for stealing the affections of Sanenari. There is no historical evidence whatsoever for this.
   The poems at the end of this chapter are from an exchange with Lady Saishô, designated specifically as such, from the Poetry Collection.


Some of Murasaki's most striking descriptions of her depression are worked into this chapter. On page 384, this long phrase is directly from the Diary:

For a long time I couldn't shake the feeling that I had been merely existing from day to day, dully registering the passage of time by taking note of the flowers, the singing birds, the way the sky changed from season to season, the moon the frost the snow-but in fact I was quite indifferent. What did any of it mean? Sometimes the thought of continuing on in that miasma was simply unbearable.

   Then, when I have her visit Uji, the description of her view of the Uji River on page 385 is drawn directly from her own Tale of Genji. It is in the mind of her morose and conflicted character Kaoru. My decision to let Uji play a large role near the end of Murasaki's life came from the darker turn her writing takes in the last ten chapters of the Tale of Genji, the so-called Uji chapters. Between the (unwritten) scene of the death of Genji and the beginning of the Uji section, are three chapters that seem rather out of character. These are: "His Perfumed Highness," "The Rose Plum," and "Bamboo River." I am not the first to have noticed this, but in suggesting that these are spurious, I have supplied a reason why this might be the case-that Empress Shôshi herself might have been uneasy with the development of Murasaki's tale, and had someone else write some lighter stuff. This is entirely conjecture.
   Later, on page 391, Murasaki's conflicted views on her friendships from court and her bleak satisfaction on managing to avoid scandal, are direct quotes from the Diary, as is her stated desire on page 392 to put her trust in Amida Buddha before it is too late. The date and place of Murasaki's death are unknown, and the end of her life, like its early years, plunges back into mist. The last piece of outside historical evidence mentioning Murasaki is from Fujiwara Sanesuke's journal, the Shôyûki . In his entry for the twenty-fifth day of the fifth month of 1013, he notes that when he sent someone to inquire after Crown Prince Atsuhira, who was ill, the man met with the lady-in-waiting Tametoki's daughter (i.e. Murasaki) who gave him the report that while the prince's illness was not serious, he had a fever and was therefore unable to attend palace business. This scene appears from Murasaki's perspective on page 393 in my tale.
   The poetry exchange with Kodayû (a lady better known as poet Ise no Tayû) at the Kiyomizu Temple (page 395) is from the
Poetry Collection, and can be dated to the twentieth day of the first month of the year 1014. In my scenario, Murasaki departed the world in the spring of 1017 after living as a religious recluse for the last years of her life.
   There is no historical evidence that she made such a retreat, but this is also the view of Setouchi Jakuchô, the Buddhist nun who has written the latest translation of the Tale of Genji in modern Japanese.


The last chapter of Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji, "The Floating Bridge of Dreams," ends inconclusively. The character Ukifune, having taken refuge in the nunnery at Ono, is discovered by her former lover Kaoru. Does Ukifune manage to attain peace? Does Kaoru succeed in luring her back to life in the secular world? Does his rival Prince Niou steal her away again? We haven't a clue. It certainly feels like Murasaki put her brush down for a moment, fully intending to pick it up later. Perhaps she did, and the rest was somehow lost (my scenario), or perhaps she got tired of writing. Or she died before she could finish it. Or she cleverly planned to leave her audience hanging. I have interwoven bits of this last chapter in binding off an ending that is meant to bring about a resolution to Murasaki's own conflicts and doubts about her life and writing, her struggle with reality and fiction, truth and falseness. "Lightning" is otherwise purely spurious.