Pseudonyms have been used since antiquity by authors who, for some reason or another, want to conceal their true identity, baffle the readers or emphasise that the private person and the author are not identical beings. Some authors have published their entire canon under a pseudonym.

But why did Karen Blixen choose to publish her first tales under a pseudonym? There are a number of possible explanations. In an interview in the Danish newspaper Politiken in 1934, she explains that she took her father, Wilhelm Dinesen, as her model. In 1889 and 1892 he published Jagtbreve and Nye Jagtbreve (the former and four chapters from the latter being published in an English translation as Letters from the Hunt, 1987) under the pseudonym Boganis – a name, meaning “little hazelnut”, given to him by the Chippewa Indians during his time in Wisconsin. In the interview, Karen Blixen says: “He had written numerous things in his own name, Wilhelm Dinesen, and he of course took full responsibility for that. But in the letters from the hunt he expressed himself freely, gave his imagination free rein or criticised men in public positions. He didn’t want people asking: Do you really mean that, Captain Dinesen, or have you, yourself, experienced that story we read in the newspaper this morning.”

Karen Blixen’s sister, Ellen Dahl, had also published two books under a pseudonym – Paracelsus – in 1929 and 1932. The books were collections of little stories and philosophical essays; they did not receive much serious critical attention. Perhaps Karen Blixen had learnt a lesson from her sister’s publications – if one is to be overlooked, then it is better to be overlooked under a pseudonym. But as early as 1907, when she was only 23, Karen Blixen had used a pseudonym – Peter Lawless – for some humorous drawings published in the political-satirical weekly magazine Klods-Hans (reproduced in Blixeniana 1983).

Will Lawless, a monk in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel The Black Arrow from 1888, possibly inspired Karen Blixen’s use of the name Peter Lawless. Stevenson was one of her favourite authors. The architect Steen Eiler Rasmussen, Karen Blixen’s neighbour for many years, writes in his article “Karen Blixen’s Rungstedlund” (reprinted in Frans Lasson: Karen Blixens Rungstedlund, 2001, not translated into English): “…At Rungstedlund there is an old, yellowed picture of Karen Blixen made before she was twenty. She stands with a jaunty expression on her face and has accentuated her pose by writing in large script over the picture ‘Peter Lawless’. “Reading in Karen Blixen’s Letters from Africa about the discomfort she felt in her childhood environment, it is easy to imagine that by choosing this pseudonym she was expressing her distance and veiled need for rebellion.

Karen Blixen made her debut as a writer in 1907. Her first publications – the short stories “Eneboerne” (“The Hermits”, not translated into English), “Pløjeren” (“The Ploughman”, not translated into English) and “The de Cats Family”, and the poem “Ex Africa” (mentioned in Letters from Africa as “Masai Reserve”; translated in Longing for Darkness, ed. Peter Beard, as “Out of Africa”) – appeared in the journals Tilskueren and Gads Danske Magasin under the pseudonym Osceola. Osceola was a North American Indian chief at the beginning of the 19th century, and Wilhelm Dinesen used the name for his gundog.

When Seven Gothic Tales was published in the USA in 1934, Karen Blixen used the pseudonym Isak Dinesen, and kept that name until the publication of the Danish version of the collection – Syv fantastiske fortællinger – even though her true identity had long since been known. Her American publisher, Robert K. Haas, tried to make her publish the tales in her own name, but Karen Blixen stuck to her wish to publish under a pseudonym.

Her original surname, Dinesen, was an obvious choice. She explained the use of Isak in an interview in 1960; she had taken it from The First Book of Moses, in which Sarah, a woman of advanced years, laughs when God announces that she will bear a son. Karen Blixen continued: “And she says afterwards that she will call him Isaac [Isak in Danish], as that means laughter, and she hopes and wishes that the whole world will laugh with her. I found that an appealing thought.” This is an explanation, certainly, but only a partial one. We are still left in the dark as to the source of her own laughter. Perhaps Karen Blixen identified with Sarah in the sense that she gave birth to a writing career at a comparatively late age, just as Sarah gave birth late to a son. Perhaps she had a purpose in choosing a male name as her pseudonym at a time when women writers were in the minority and possibly not quite as respected as their male colleagues. A forerunner in this respect was the 19th-century Frenchwoman, Aurore Dudevant, who wrote under the pseudonym George Sand.

Karen Blixen’s books continue to be published under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen in the USA. In Denmark she changed to Karen Blixen with the publication of Out of Africa, with the exception of The Angelic Avengers for which she used a new pseudonym, Pierre Andrézel. “Isak Dinesen”, however, appeared again on two Danish publications – the independent editions of Babette’s Feast and Ghost Horses – possibly to indicate that they were originally written for the American weekly Ladies’ Home Journal.

Karen Blixen explained that The Angelic Avengers was published under the new pseudonym of Pierre Andrézel because she did not consider it to be part of her serious writings. It was written in Danish, but the title page states that the book had been translated by Clara Svendsen, Karen Blixen’s secretary – this was another red herring to make the readers believe that the book was the work of a French author. In the event, it was not long before Pierre Andrézel and Karen Blixen were generally presumed to be one and the same person, although she first admitted this publicly in an interview given in 1956.