Female forward: An illustration of Murasaki Shikibu, who lived in Japan from about 973 to 1014, writing The Tale of Genji, a court romance some consider the world’s first novel. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
Acton Bell. Currer Bell. Ellis Bell. Any of those names ring a bell?
They did in 19th-century England, as the authors of Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Acton); Jane Eyre and Shirley (Currer); and Wuthering Heights (Ellis).
And there, in the last title, is the giveaway. Acton, Currer and Ellis were pseudonyms for Alice, Charlotte and Emily and the surname Bell for Brontë.
But why this disguise? Writing in Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell, a preface to the memorial edition of Wuthering Heights that she had prepared, Currer explains: “We agreed to arrange a small selection of our poems, and, if possible, get them printed.
“Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the scourge of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.”
This is a magnificent skewering of a critical foible still prevalent today — “the scourge of personality” — and an indictment of the misogyny of the publishing and literary worlds that the Brontës and countless other women writers before and after them encountered.
Why else would Mary Ann, later Marian, Evans, have chosen to publish as “George Eliot”? And even in the 21st century, one of her publishers in putting out a Vintage Classics edition of Middlemarch was unable in its biographical note to render correctly her given names, providing those as Mary Anne.
What’s the fuss over an E? It reveals ignorance and carelessness — would we ever see “Yeates”?
Charlotte Brontë tended the literary legacy of her sisters with great care and love. All were short-lived: Emily (1818–48), Anne (1820–49), and Charlotte (1816–55) succumbing to the long-term effects of having been sent to the spartan Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan Bridge, which readers of Jane Eyre will recognise as that novel’s Lowood.
Although celebrated for Jane Eyre, Charlotte arguably deserves to be as widely hailed for Shirley, which advances ideas and causes later termed feminist.
The scene is Yorkshire, the time the end days of the Napoleonic Wars. The local mill owner Robert Gérard Moore, half English and half Belgian, is intent, as are all capitalists, to cut down on the workforce. He instals “labour-saving” machines on the factory floor, despite the state of the market — wool exports are almost void — and the protests of the workers.
The workers first attack the machines, in good Luddite fashion (I don’t use Luddite pejoratively), and then turn their ire on Moore. Having survived, Moore seeks escape from his financial woes in the time-honoured way of the rascal and bounder — finding an heiress to sustain him.
He fixes his ambitions on Shirley Keeldar, admittedly because he believes her to be in love with him; she is not. The twin romances that ensue could be out of Shakespeare or opera but the deep underlying notions of the novel are about the emancipation of women.
Memorably, Charlotte wrote that it was meant to be as “unromantic as Monday morning”. It was a social work, a powerful argument for greater opportunities for women to work and not to be at the mercy of society as wives or spinsters, the latter ever more reliant on pity, charity and self-denial as they grew older.
Given that women writers were treated so shabbily less than 200 years ago, it’s a shock to realise the work regarded as the world’s first novel, an undisputed masterpiece of observation, manners and mores that brings its time and characters to vivid life on the page and in the mind, was written by a woman in the 11th century CE in Japan.
The Tale of Genji is Japan’s great classic, standing in relation to its culture as Homer’s Iliad does to Hellenic thought and worldview. Its creator is Murasaki Shikibu, born in 973CE to a mid-level aristocratic family of the kind that provided society with provincial governors.
Although she was part of the huge and almost omnipotent Fujiwara family, her given names were not recorded; Murasaki Shikibu is a nickname formulated later. Shikibu means “Bureau of Ceremonial”, a post once held by her father, and Murasaki has the virtue of being the name of the heroine in Genji.
Scholarship shows by 1007 or 1008, Murasaki Shikibu had all but completed the 54 chapters traditionally acknowledged as coming from her writing brush. Her own ending is less certain. Her last appearance in the written records is 1013 and the great Genji scholar and translator Royall Tyler thinks she might have died the following year, which would make hers a short life of 41 or so years.
But, as the Latin saying goes, “ars longa, vita brevis” (art is long, life is short) and a thousand years after Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji it is read and revered not only in Japan but around the world.
At its heart is Genji, the “Shining Prince”, one of the emperor’s sons, but born not of the empress or a consort but of an “Intimate”. To explain briefly, the nobility competed to present their daughters to the emperor or to the heir apparent.
In order to preserve the fragile balance of power and influence in the court and beyond, the emperor engaged in a range of defined relationships with women.
Horrific as this seems to us now, it was not an arrangement primarily to gratify the ruler’s sexual desires. The empress was usually appointed from among the consorts, below which were the less socially and politically powerful Intimates. The sons of Intimates had the fewest hopes of imperial preferment, being the bottom rung of the emperor’s offspring.
In Genji’s case, the emperor would love to overthrow tradition and make this son of his the heir apparent, over the son of the consort who holds that title. But to do so would ensure dissent and revolt at court (in the city we call Kyoto) and the eruption of society as a whole.
Instead, the emperor opts for a rare solution. He removes Genji from the imperial family by giving him a surname (emperors don’t have those), freeing him to become a “commoner” and a high-ranking government official. Better a bird able to fly and soar than one cooped up in the gilded cage of the palace.
The boy becomes a Minamoto, the surname given by a real emperor to a son in 814. This renaming happens in the first chapter, The Paulownia Pavilion, setting up its main character and the reader for all the possibilities and people to come, most significant among those being Murasaki.
It’s important to note the duality of “Genji”. On becoming a Minamoto, the youth becomes also a carrier of the Minamoto (one of the readings of gen) name (ji). He is both Genji and a Genji.
It is this splendid character and his thoughts, feelings and adventures whom the reader follows through the 1 120 pages of the Tyler translation (Penguin Classics, 2001).
Tyler notes at the beginning of his introduction “anyone can read it today. The notes are useful but not required.” This is a piece of excessive modesty from the translator, who provides extensive but succinct footnotes, a chronology of the story, a general and a character glossary, entries on clothing, colour, official offices and titles, and a summary of the many poetic allusions in the text.
This is an impressive scholarly apparatus presented most accessibly to non-scholarly readers. You can indeed do without it, but using it enhances appreciation and understanding of people and a world with scores of hidden restraints and lines not to be crossed without careful thought.
The Brontës and Murasaki Shikibu would have enjoyed each other’s company. So too Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, whose The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha stands at the forefront of all novels in Western literature. Eerily, also, compare the opening lines of Genji and Don Quixote.
“In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty’s Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favour. Those others who had always assumed that pride of place was properly theirs despised her as a dreadful woman, while the lesser Intimates were unhappier still.” — Genji
“In a certain corner of La Mancha, the name of which I do not choose to remember, there lately lived one of those country gentlemen, who adorn their halls with a rusty lance and worm-eaten target, and ride forth on the skeleton of a horse, to course with a sort of starved greyhound.” — Don Quixote, from the still vastly enjoyable translation by Tobias Smollett (1755).