KAREN BLIXEN IN AFRICA

December 2 1913 was a date that decisively changed the sheltered, but not completely trouble-free life of the landowner’s daughter, Karen Dinesen. On that day she left Denmark and her childhood home at Rungstedlund, and embarked on the journey to Africa, where she would marry her betrothed, the Swedish Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke and – with considerable financial backing from both their families – begin a new life on a coffee farm in British East Africa, later to become the independent state of Kenya.

28 YEARS OLD

She was 28 years old, her farmer husband was 27, and both had great expectations of life as settlers in Africa – a life which, however, soon proved far more difficult than they had envisaged.

They moved into their first farm, M’Bagathi, straight after their wedding in Mombasa in January 1914. In August that year the First World War broke out and spread to East Africa, with battles being fought there between the Germans and British. This led to a shortage of both workers and supplies for the farms and in 1917 the British banned the import of coffee. On top of this the country was hit by cattle-plague and between 1915 and 1918 by catastrophic spells of drought.

All the newly established farms in the country therefore experienced extremely tough years, both during and after the war. The difficult conditions were exacerbated by Bror Blixen’s hazardous projects and irresponsible financial transactions, which led to a deficit and debts. In his biography of Bror Blixen, Ulf Aschan quotes one of Bror Blixen’s acquaintances as remarking: “I think that Blix was the only person in the world who genuinely believed that a bill was paid off when he had signed it.” In 1916, however, the family-owned limited company, Karen Coffee Company Ltd., still had confidence in the future and bought a larger coffee farm, M’Bogani near the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi – the farm we know from Out of Africa.

WAR, DROUGHT AND ACCUMULATING DEBT

War, drought and accumulating debt were, however, not the only things to mar the Blixen couple’s dream of a family life in Africa. A few months after their wedding, Karen Blixen became ill and went to the doctor in Nairobi. She was diagnosed as having syphilis. She was treated with mercury tablets, but did not recover and in April 1915 she had to travel to Denmark for specialist treatment. She was a patient at the National Hospital in Copenhagen for three months. The illness was arrested at the secondary stage and thereby any risk of passing on the infection was also prevented. But for the rest of her life Karen Blixen was plagued by attacks of intense pain, which according to the most recent research was due to chronic heavy metal poisoning caused by the mercury treatment (see Kaare Weismann’s paper: “Gastriske kriser, tabes og tungmetaller. Karen Blixens sygdomsforløb” in Bibliotek for Læger, 1993; “Neurosyphilis, or Chronic Heavy Metal Poisoning: Karen Blixen’s Lifelong Disease”, in Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 1995). Whether or not it was Bror who infected Karen Blixen with syphilis remains unclear.

DENYS FINCH HATTON

In 1918 Karen Blixen met the English aristocrat and army officer Denys Finch Hatton (1887-1931), who was a trader and safari leader in East Africa. The meeting led to the start of a long love affair, the nature of which is apparent in Karen Blixen’s Letters from Africa; she writes, for example, to her brother Thomas Dinesen on August 3 1924: “I believe that for all time and eternity I am bound to Denys, to love the ground he walks upon, to be happy beyond words when he is here, and to suffer worse than death many times when he leaves…” From some of the letters and telegrams in the Karen Blixen Archives in the Royal Library, Copenhagen, it is evident, moreover, that in 1924 Karen Blixen thought she was expecting a child by Denys Finch Hatton; he, however, declined to assume any responsibility for a child.

THE DIVORCE

The marriage between Karen and Bror Blixen was already on the rocks by 1919, and in 1920 Bror Blixen asked his wife, in writing, for a divorce. She rejected the idea at the time, but the following year they were formally separated, much against her wishes. Karen Blixen’s maternal uncle, Aage Westenholz, the chairman of the Karen Coffee Company, dismissed Bror Blixen as manager. Karen Blixen took over the running of the coffee farm and in 1925 the divorce was finalised.

THE FARM SOLD AT AUCTION

Karen Blixen did not succeed in straightening out the farm’s hopeless financial situation, and in 1931 the board of directors ran out of patience. The farm was sold at auction; Karen Blixen had to get ready to leave Africa. On May 14, a few months before her departure, Denys Finch Hatton was killed when his private plane crashed. By that time, however, their relationship was not as close as it had been; it had cooled in 1928, due to, among other factors, Denys Finch Hatton’s decision to take Bror Blixen along on the royal safaris arranged during the official visit of the Prince of Wales to Kenya.

On August 31 1931, 46-year-old Karen Blixen, now financially ruined, moved in with her mother at Rungstedlund. Her life had changed decisively when she went to Africa in 1913, to marriage and life as a settler, and now it changed as radically again: she was obliged to find a new purpose in life and a new occupation. She set out to finish the stories she had started writing in Africa around 1925-26, the time at which her problems had begun piling up.

AFRICA, A MARRIAGE AND A LOVE AFFAIR

Africa, a marriage and a love affair had all been lost. From the ruins arose a writing career, but also a life beyond the norm of husband, children and paying job – which was not without its costs. Many years later, in the story “Second Meeting”, the director of the marionette theatre, Pipistrello, says to Lord Byron: “Certainly it is a great happiness to be able to turn the things which happen to you into stories. It is perhaps the one perfect happiness that a human being will find in life. But it is at the same time, inexplicably to the uninitiated, a loss, a curse even.” The story was not published until after Karen Blixen’s death.

In 1932 Karen Blixen had finished her collection of tales, written in English. Her efforts to get them published in Great Britain were unsuccessful. The next step was to ask a friend of her Aunt Bess, the American writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher, to read them. This she did and recommended them to her own publisher, Robert K. Haas. Initially he considered it too risky to publish “short stories” by an unknown, European writer. But Karen Blixen worked on and in 1933 she sent them off again, this time with an additional tale “The Deluge at Norderney”. Robert K. Haas decided to publish. Even before publication the collection was chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club in the USA, and on April 9 1934 Seven Gothic Tales was published under the pseudonym “Isak Dinesen”. The New York Herald Tribune reviewed the book with the heading: “These Magic Tales Have an Air of Genius.”

On May 1 1934 Karen Blixen told the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende that she was the Isak Dinesen who had written Seven Gothic Tales. Negotiations with Danish publishers resulted in the book being published by Reitzels Forlag on September 25 1934 – in Karen Blixen’s own Danish version, entitled Syv fantastiske Fortællinger.