Readers may find it tempting to compare The Diary of Lady Murasaki and The Pillow Book—after all, the authors are the 2 most celebrated female prose writers in the Heian period. In a sense, The Pillow Book stands alone better as literature, as The Diary of Lady Murasaki is much thinner and more private, more personal in nature—mostly interesting to her fans, perhaps. But the diary is invaluable as the only personal account of the author of The Tale of Genji.
Murasaki Shikibu’s genius cannot be exaggerated. When I compare her and Tolstoy in terms of scope, characterisation, and depiction of human consciousness, I’m also aware that before Tolstoy, there were Walter Scott, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Mikhail Lermontov, Ivan Turgenev, and so on and so forth. Before Murasaki Shikibu started writing The Tale of Genji in the early 11th century, there was barely anything in Japan—all the writings I have read state the same fact that previously there had been personal diaries and tales, mostly romantic tales; no fiction with a similar realism or depiction of characters’ inner lives, let alone something of such breadth and depth. The Tale of Genji was built upon such a slight foundation that it almost seems to have come out of nowhere.
It is no wonder that her diary is a treasure. Murasaki Shikibu is elusive on the pages of The Tale of Genji, but in her diary, I can get to know her better. In it, I recognise the beautiful writing and melancholic tone, the love of nature (especially the moon) and vivid descriptions of events, the sensitivity, sharp observations, and self-analysis that one would expect from the author. She isn’t overwhelmed by the rank and splendour of court life like Sei Shonagon, but instead, feels out of place—she writes about the pettiness of court life, its constant rivalry, noblemen’s drunkenness, and her own loneliness and sense of alienation.
Murasaki Shikibu herself was part of a minor branch of the powerful Fujiwara clan, and at court she was serving Empress Shoshi, daughter of Fujiwara no Michinaga. As written in my blog post about The Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon was serving Empress Teishi, daughter of Fujiwara no Michitaka, but soon after Michitaka’s death, Michinaga gained power, then banished Teishi’s brother, and installed Shoshi as a concurrent Empress to Emperor Ichijo. In Japan around this time, the Emperor had little power—the actual power belonged to the Fujiwara clan.
It is interesting that Murasaki Shikibu was part of the Fujiwara clan, but in The Tale of Genji, the central character is Genji, a commoner, and the Fujiwara clan is his enemy, especially the Kokiden Consort.
My copy was a Penguin Classics edition, translated and introduced by Richard Bowring. The book is (disappointingly) thin, and about half of it is introduction and appendices. I’m glad that the introduction is long and detailed, explaining the cultural and religious background, language, style, architecture, dress, women’s titles, Murasaki Shikibu’s biography, and the structure of the diary, but I wish the diary were longer, much longer. I’d be interested to read 400, even 500, pages.
I perhaps shouldn’t be comparing, but comparison is hard to resist. Fans of The Pillow Book who come to The Diary of Lady Murasaki, expecting a similar book, may be disappointed, because there are no amusing anecdotes and lively characters. Apart from the prince’s birth (Shoshi’s son) and various rituals, the focus of the diary is on the author herself, her feelings and self-reflection, not really other people.
Between the two, Sei Shonagon is livelier and more fun, but Murasaki Shikibu is much deeper and more sensitive, and much greater as an artist.
She does praise Empress Shoshi, but without the same kind of excessive adoration and worship as when Sei Shonagon writes about Empress Teishi. There’s nothing clear so I’m not sure about her views on people of lower classes, and I don’t expect her to think that everyone is equal regardless of class, but still think that, to some extent, she seems critical of the ranking system, and in the diary, writes about being bound by rank.
She doesn’t write anything overly belittling or insulting about people of lower classes, which Sei Shonagon does constantly throughout The Pillow Book—we of course shouldn’t try to impose modern standards on people from centuries ago, but at the same time I don’t really think everything should be uncritically taken for granted as part of its time either. It is definitely a world of strict hierarchy, and Japan at its roots is a Confucian society, where everyone has their own place, but I also think that Sei Shonagon is particularly snobbish and contemptuous, even callous, which I don’t see in Murasaki Shikibu. Murasaki’s scathing remarks about some other court ladies are about knowledge, skills, attitude, and behaviour (particularly arrogance and smugness), not rank, class, or poverty. There is no malicious mockery.
A reader of The Pillow Book who expects snobbery, bordering on meanness and contempt, to be a matter of course in the Heian period would be surprised to realise that Murasaki is not the same.
(There’s a part in me that very much likes Sei Shonagon’s wit, humour, and strong personality, but the other part dislikes her superficiality, meanness, and obsession with rank).
This is a lovely book for fans of Murasaki Shikibu. If only it were a few hundred pages longer.