Isak Dinesen was born Karen Christentze Dinesen on April 17, 1885, and died as Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke on September 7, 1962. Her long life was filled with a bizarre mixture of family problems, illness, world travel, and the sort of fame that causes one’s name to become a household word. For all of her fame, however, Karen Blixen lived an unenviable life, although anyone might covet the talent and determination that she possessed.
Dinesen was the second child (the second daughter) of a well-to-do Danish family, and throughout her life she was known by the childhood nickname “Tanne,” which came from her mispronunciation of her given name. From earliest childhood, Tanne thought of herself as a very special person, particularly in contrast to her mother’s family—proper, bourgeois, Unitarian, and politically conservative. Because of the staid maternal atmosphere that surrounded her, Tanne’s favorite was her father Wilhelm. This lively, witty man would spend hours in the company of Tanne, talking and laughing. He told his daughter stories of his life as a soldier, and his adventures as a trapper among the Chippewa Indians of America. He even encouraged Tanne’s literary efforts, admiring the tales she wrote and the pictures she drew to illustrate them.
Tanne enjoyed too few years as her father’s confidante. When she was ten, her father, then newly elected to the Danish Parliament, hanged himself in his apartment in Copenhagen. The shock of his death was increased by its unexpectedness: he had shown no sign of depression. In fact, the children were not told until years later that his death had been a suicide. Even so, they felt deserted, especially Tanne, who was devastated. She felt rejected, and her choice of a husband many years afterward may have been influenced by the suitor’s resemblance to her father.
As Tanne grew older, she continued to write little stories, but she preferred drawing. Her desire to study art drew objections from her mother, who thought the world of art too bohemian for her young daughter. The expected happened. Rebelling against the maternal injunction, Tanne chose art for a career. She studied at the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and later in Paris, where she won respect for her talent.
Tanne found more than art in Paris: she fell in love for the first time, with Hans von Blixen-Finecke. Hans and his brother Bror were Swedish, blond, athletic, and expert hunters. (Bror especially became famous as a hunter in Africa, where he served as the model for Robert Wilson in Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”) Although Tanne fell in love with Hans, she married Bror, for reasons that none of her friends could understand. Later, she herself said that the choice had been governed by her desire to be Baroness Blixen (Bror was the elder brother), but many of her friends at the time thought that Bror’s resemblance to Wilhelm Dinesen was the key.
Despite his physical likeness to Wilhelm Dinesen, Bror absolutely lacked Wilhelm’s appreciation of literature. Tanne’s father had shared her love of writing, and their likemindedness in this respect was one reason for their closeness. Bror, with all his bravado and outdoorsmanship, could never hope to match the type of love that Tanne dimly remembered and treasured from her life with her father.
The couple’s engagement was announced in 1912, and Bror, who left afterward for an African safari, was joined by Tanne and they married in 1914. They had collected money from their friends and relations to buy a coffee plantation in Kenya. The choice was a strange one: both were such novices that they did not realize for several years that they were doomed to fail as coffee planters. Their land was too acidic and the region too dry ever to produce an adequate crop, and for many years they picked only a fraction of the tonnage they had expected.
Their move to Kenya in 1914 began a period of more difficulties than just agricultural ones. The Blixens found themselves in the middle when World War I began: Kenya, as a British protectorate, joined the hostilities against the German colonies. Tanne and Bror were technically neutrals, but they decided to aid their host country. Bror joined a regiment with other foreigners in Kenya, leaving Tanne with the job of managing the farm and overseeing the African field hands and house servants.
Tanne describes the adventures of those years in Out of Africa (1937). For example, she tells how she once led a supply train through Masai country to bring supplies to her husband’s unit. One of Bror’s adventures was to have serious consequences: to visit his wife, he walked eighty-six miles in two days. He arrived at her camp with dysentery, contracted during a night he had spent in a Masai encampment. Although Tanne feared for his life, he recovered and rejoined his unit the next day.
The next few months were nightmarish: besides the conscription of most of the field hands and the requisitioning of most of the farm animals, Tanne became seriously ill with what she thought was malaria. The doctor she saw ordered her home to Europe. Before sailing home, Tanne took a two-month...
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