Many great artists and writers show a desire during childhood and early youth to express themselves in the form of poems, little stories and sketches. This was also true of Karen Blixen – born Dinesen in 1885.

As an 8-year-old she wrote “Vers af Karen Dinesen fra 1893” (“Verse by Karen Dinesen, 1893”, not translated into English), and she continued to write fairy tales, stories and plays, the latter being performed at her home with her sisters and friends. The notebooks in which she wrote are also full of drawings of trolls and landscapes, portraits of women and illustrations of her favourite reading at the time, which included Shakespeare’s plays and the novels of Charles Dickens.


In 1902, at the age of 17, she took classes at the private drawing school of Charlotte Sode and Julie Meldahl in Copenhagen, and the following year she was accepted by the newly established women’s school at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. She continued to write and in 1907 and 1909 some of her short stories were published under the pseudonym “Osceola” in two of the leading literary periodicals of the time. They received no particular attention and in 1910 she left for Paris with her sister, ostensibly to attend an art school. As her diary shows, the benefits of the stay were limited. She participated, with no great enthusiasm, in the social life of the city and was all in all to “find life so loathsome that I could be sick”. When, in 1913, she became engaged to the Swedish baron, Bror Blixen-Finecke, and emigrated to Africa, she had apparently given up all thoughts of an artistic career – although she did take along the notebooks in which she kept her ideas and drafts.


Many years later in Africa, with one calamity after the other raining down on her, Karen Blixen took stock of her life. In a letter written in 1926, she explains to her brother, Thomas Dinesen, why she gave up both writing and painting:
“Of course I should have decided for myself; but here again I met with that strange opposition to everything that was in any way outside the narrow circle of home, and that peculiar power they had of always making one feel in the wrong when one stood out against them. What were they thinking of? I suppose they really thought that our future lay in marriage.”

The Dinesen family was not alone in this. At the turn of the century, women were still considered destined for marriage and family life. The first educational establishments for women were opened some 20 years before Karen Blixen was born, and initially it was not the daughters of the upper classes – of which Karen Blixen was one – who attended teacher training colleges or schools of nursing. Young women from Karen Blixen’s milieu were still brought up to conduct themselves appropriately in marriage and society life, learn foreign languages and read literature, possibly play a musical instrument or paint. But only with a view to general cultivation and amusement.


On her father’s side, Karen Blixen’s male relatives were military officers and landowners, on her mother’s side wealthy traders and landowners. Her father, Wilhelm Dinesen, was born on the estate of Katholm in Jutland. Being the younger son he trained as an army officer and fought in the Dano-Prussian War of 1864 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. In 1872 he travelled to Wisconsin in North America where he worked as a hunter, living among the native Indians. On his return to Denmark in 1874 he purchased three properties in north Sealand – one of them being Rungstedlund, where Karen Blixen was born.

In 1881 Wilhelm Dinesen married Ingeborg Westenholz, daughter of Minister of Finance Regnar Westenholz, a wealthy merchant trader with an office in London who later bought the estate of Matrup near the town of Horsens in Jutland, where Ingeborg had been born. Wilhelm and Ingeborg had three daughters in quick succession – Inger (Ea) in 1883, Karen (Tanne) in 1885 and Ellen (Elle) in 1886. Two sons followed – Thomas in 1892 and Anders in 1894.


In 1892 Wilhelm Dinesen was elected to the Danish parliament as an independent with sympathies for the Venstre (Liberal) party. When parliament was in session he lived in a boarding house in Copenhagen and it was here, on March 28 1895, that he hanged himself. There is no official explanation as to why the 49-year-old landowner, Member of Parliament and father of five young children took his own life. The only extant, written, testimony is a letter from Ingeborg Dinesen to her son Thomas, in which she wrote: “For father, the thought of living as a defeated and sick man was intolerable.”

In a interview from 1959 Karen Blixen said: “My father’s family were engaging people, but they were not skilled at living. They were doomed in advance, as we say, from the beginning. They were highly gifted, but they expected too much from life.”


karen Blixen was 10 years old when Wilhelm Dinesen died. She suffered greatly from the loss, as she had been very attached to him, but also because in the fatherless home in which she grew up there was no counterbalance to all the strong and religious women by whom the children were now surrounded – their mother, Ingeborg; their unmarried maternal aunt, Bess (Mary Westenholz); grandmother, Mama (Mary Westenholz), who was a widow and lived at the nearby farm, Folehave; their governess, Miss Zøylner, and their nanny, Malla.

In a letter to her son Thomas, written in 1931, Ingeborg Dinesen sums up the environment very precisely and expresses understanding as to why Karen Blixen did not thrive in it as a young girl:
“I have so often been smitten with remorse for allowing Folehave to lay its loving, but burdensome weight so heavily upon you all, – mostly on Tanne, of course, who was most removed from the whole atmosphere… of course I know that she would feel oppressed by life here with Bess and me, Countess Ahlefeldt, Mrs Funch, Ulla etc, – altogether conservatism in amiable stagnation.”

In his book Tanne. Min søster Karen Blixen, 1974 (My Sister, Isak Dinesen, 1975), Thomas Dinesen writes about their childhood home; about Mama and her Victorian outlook with fixed and unshakeable moral codes and about his mother Ingeborg as “one of the most religious people I have ever known”. About his sisters’ upbringing he writes diplomatically: “It was almost certainly not always easy for my three sisters to acquire an education, with all that emphasis on good and evil, those rights and wrongs, the duties and deeds, the correct and suitable words, indeed, almost suitably polite thoughts, too.” Karen Blixen’s view of this stifling, Victorian milieu is described in a number of her Breve fra Afrika.

In Africa, Karen Blixen’s longing for “Wings'” the title of one of the chapters in Out of Africa – was fulfilled. But winged flight presupposes the possibility of abrupt fall, and Karen Blixen experienced that as well.