KAREN BLIXEN’S LETTERS


LETTERS FROM AFRICA

In 1978, on behalf of the Rungstedlund Foundation, Karen Blixen researcher Frans Lasson edited a comprehensive selection of letters written by Karen Blixen to her family in Denmark during her 17 years as a farmer in Africa (1914-31). There are, however, gaps in the correspondence, due to Karen Blixen’s periodic trips to Denmark, which account for 5 years of the total 17 years. No letters to her brother Thomas have been preserved from the period November 1928 to April 1931. Whether any letters were sent during that period is not known, but in 1929 Karen Blixen lived with her mother at Rungstedlund for just over 6 months.

The bulk of the letters are to Karen Blixen’s brother, Thomas, and her mother, Ingeborg Dinesen. Both visited her at the farm, Thomas Dinesen staying for lengthy periods. But there are also letters to her sisters, Inger “Ea” de Neergaard and Ellen Dahl, and to her maternal aunt, Mary Bess Westenholz, with whom Karen Blixen engaged in a lifelong discussion about women’s emancipation, Victorianism and sexual morality.

OMISSIONS
The publication of the letters was undertaken in collaboration with Thomas Dinesen; in 1978 he was the last surviving sibling of the five who had grown up together at Rungstedlund. In his introduction to the letters, Frans Lasson writes that Thomas Dinesen had requested that certain sentences and sections should be omitted out of consideration for the immediate family.

Nearly all the letters concerning the financial affairs of the Karen Coffee Company have also been left out of the collection. But otherwise the letters give, often week-by-week, a detailed picture of Karen Blixen’s life in Africa. As Frans Lasson writes in his introduction:

“We learn of the collaboration between black and white people on the farm, of her close ties with the English colonies in Kenya, of seventeen years of financial struggle to keep the farm going, of the continual communication with the family in Denmark, of her marriage and relationship with the men who mentally and erotically influenced her destiny, of the aesthetic and religious elements that came to mark her view of life. But also the letters are of historical interest reaching beyond the person of Karen Blixen. She arrived in Africa at the same time as the last wave of, in particular, English colonists in Kenya, but quickly established a personal, deeply involved relationship with the native population that was far in advance of her time.”

Frans Lasson concludes his introduction with a statement from Karen Blixen: “No-one came into literature more bloody than I.” Letters from Africa confirms her words.

Some of the letters concerning the Karen Coffee Company, which are not included in Letters from Africa, can be found in the first 40 pages of Kraftens horn. Myte og virkelighed i Karen Blixens liv, 1982 (The Power of Aries: Myth and Reality in Karen Blixen’s Life, 1987), written by Anders Westenholz, grandson of Aage Westenholz who was Karen Blixen’s maternal uncle and chairman of the coffee company.

The revised Danish edition of Letters from Africa from 1996, and a paperback Danish edition from 1998 include three extra letters, published in their full length for the first time. One of them, written in February 1920, is the letter from Bror to Karen Blixen in which he suggests divorce. The other two were written by Karen Blixen in 1922, to Bror’s sister Ellen af Kleen. In the first, Karen Blixen expresses her indecisiveness concerning Bror’s suggestion of divorce, and she asks her sister-in-law for advice. In the second letter, Karen Blixen expresses how difficult her situation would be in the small, intimate and “gossipy” community should both she and Bror continue to live in Kenya after their divorce.


LETTERS 1931 – 62

In 1996, Frans Lasson and Tom Engelbrecht edited and published Karen Blixen i Danmark. Breve 1931-62 (Karen Blixen in Denmark. Letters 1931-62, not translated into English) in two volumes comprising a total of almost 1,300 pages. The book has a comprehensive introduction by Frans Lasson, giving an account of the main features in Karen Blixen’s life during the 31 years she lived in Denmark following her return from Africa.

In contrast to Letters from Africa, 1981, which only includes letters written by Karen Blixen, the 1931-62 selection also includes letters written to her by family, friends, critics, publishers and readers. This provides a picture of Danish cultural life at the time and the circles in which Karen Blixen moved.

The people whose correspondence with Karen Blixen is represented in the collection fall into seven main categories:

FAMILY
Including: her mother Ingeborg Dinesen, sister Ellen Dahl, brothers Anders and Thomas Dinesen, maternal aunts Mary Bess Westenholz (Aunt Bess) and Karen Sass (Aunt Lidda), maternal uncle Aage Westenholz, ex-husband Bror Blixen-Finecke.

FRIENDS
Including: Birthe Andrup, Countess Sophie Bernstorff-Gyldensteen (second cousin), Jytte Knipschildt, Else Reventlow, Steen Eller Rasmussen (architect and neighbour), Clara Svendsen (Karen Blixen’s secretary).

DANISH WRITERS AND ARTISTS
Including: Thorkild Bjørnvig, Jørgen Gustava Brandt, Erik Clemmensen, Johannes V. Jensen, Frank Jæger, Otto Rung, Tage Skou-Hansen, Ole Wivel.

NON – DANISH WRITERS AND ARTISTS
Including: Dorothy Canfield Fisher, John Gielgud.

DANISH RESEARCHERS AND REVIEWERS
Including: Hans Brix, Christian Elling, Aage Henriksen, Knud W. Jensen, Bent Mohn, Johannes Rosendahl.

FRIENDS AND ACQAINTANCES FROM AFRICA
Including: Abdullahi Ahamed, Otto Casparsson, Farah Aden, Juma bin Muhammed, Kamante Gatura, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, Ingrid Lindström, Gustav Mohr.

DANISH AND NON-DANISH PUBLISHERS
Frederik Hegel, Constant Huntington, Robert K. Haas.

As the correspondence covers so many different people, taken together the letters give a broad impression of Karen Blixen’s life in Denmark from 1931 onwards. The letters illuminate aspects of Karen Blixen’s daily life, both at Rungstedlund and together with family and close friends, and also the discussions she conducted with other artists and critics about contemporary literature and her own work. Her correspondence with the poet Thorkild Bjørnvig is an interesting supplement to his description of their close relationship in the book Pagten, 1974 (The Pact. My Friendship with Isak Dinesen, 1983). The exchange of letters with old friends and acquaintances from Kenya shows that Karen Blixen never abandoned her interest in and solicitude for the people to whom she grew attached when she lived in Africa. Her correspondence with publishers and with her lawyers, Erik Petri and Philip Ingerslev, shows how she tackled practical matters relating to her writing and the Rungstedlund Foundation.