SEVEN GOTHIC TALES

Karen Blixen wrote her debut collection of tales in English, her main language during the 17 years she lived in Kenya. The collection was published in America, under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen and the title Seven Gothic Tales, on April 9 1934. That year the collection was chosen by the American Book-of-the-Month Club, thus affording immediate access to a very large readership. Karen Blixen translated the tales into Danish, and Syv fantastiske fortællinger was published in Denmark on September 25 1935, also under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen, even though by then the identity of the author was known.

In translating “Gothic” to “fantastiske” (“fantastical/fabulous”), the tales’ basis in an established Anglo-Saxon genre was lost. The original English-language title might well have contributed to the enthusiastic reception of the collection in the USA (“These Magic Tales Have an Air of Genius”, New York Herald Tribune), as the American reviewers were familiar with the genre, whereas for many of the Danish reviewers it appeared to be “pastiche” and “conjuring tricks” based on “spurious effects” and an “affected” style – an alien ingredient in the predominantly social-realist Danish literature of the 1930s.

Some of the foremost Anglo-Saxon authors of 19th century had written Gothic tales and novels: Robert Louis Stevenson, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner – all of whom feature in Karen Blixen’s private library. Karen Blixen adopted a very free approach to the traditional Gothic genre, but she worked within a number of its parameters.

The themes of Gothic novels include: the collapse of feudal aristocracy; young heroes and heroines held captive in ancient castles and convents by powerful and manipulative men; the tyranny of the past stifling the hopes of the present generation. Women writers were especially fond of the genre – presumably because its traditional themes of oppression and persecution went hand-in-hand with women’s experience of lack of freedom and independence in a patriarchal society.

In an interview she gave in 1934, Karen Blixen explained why the Seven Gothic Tales are set in the mid-1900s, a time of unrest and upheaval, with a feudal society under an absolute monarch being faced by dawning middle-class demands for parliamentary democracy:
“I moved my Tales back a hundred years to a really romantic time, in which people and relations were different from today. Only in that way could I be completely free.”
Unfortunately she does not elaborate on what she means by “free”. But she achieved her freedom – under cover of the historical mask of the tales she drew on conflicts from her own life without her family and friends being aware of the connection. It was not until much later – after many years of thorough biographical research – that literary scholars began to draw parallels between Karen Blixen’s own life and the universe she created in her tales.

TITLES OF THE SEVEN GOTHIC TALES:

  • The Roads Round Pisa
  • The Old Chevalier
  • The Monkey
  • The Deluge at Norderney
  • The Supper at Elsinore
  • The Dreamers
  • The Poet