(1885 – 1962)
Isak Dinesen is best known for Seven Gothic Tales (1934) and the autobiographical novel Out of Africa (1937). Acclaimed for her poetic prose style, complex characters, and intricate plots, Dinesen was concerned with such themes as the lives and values of aristocrats, the nature of fate and destiny, God and the supernatural, the artist, and the place of women in society. Hailed as a protofeminist by some critics, scorned as a colonialist by others, Dinesen is chiefly regarded as a masterly storyteller. Ernest Hemingway once remarked that the Nobel Prize in Literature he received in 1954 should have been awarded to her.
Born Karen Christenze Dinesen on April 17, 1885, in Rungsted, Denmark, Dinesen led a happy childhood until tragedy shattered her comfortable existence. In 1895 her father, Wilhelm, hung himself. Dinesen had always been very close to her father, and his suicide was a shock. Dinesen later reflected: ‘‘It was as if a part of oneself had also died.’’ Dinesen’s brother Thomas, with whom she remained close as an adult, later speculated that their father had suffered from syphilis, a disease that Dinesen herself would contract years later.
Literature for Fun
Tutored at home by a series of governesses, Dinesen showed early artistic promise and as a teenager studied drawing, painting, and languages at a private school in France. In 1903 she was admitted into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. There she developed her affinity for painting, an interest that would later be reflected in the rich descriptive style of her writing. Dinesen dropped out of the academy after several year’s study and soon thereafter took up writing. Mario Krohn, an art historian Dinesen had met at the academy, read her work and encouraged her to take writing seriously. Krohn also arranged to have some of her stories read by Valdemar Vedel, editor of one of Denmark’s most distinguished literary magazines, Tilskueren.
During these years Dinesen spent much of her time in the company of her upper-class relatives and soon found herself deeply but unhappily involved with her second cousin, Hans Blixen-Finecke. The failed love affair had a great impact on Dinesen. Extremely depressed, she left Denmark in 1910 to attend a new art school in Paris. When Mario Krohn visited Dinesen in Paris and asked her about her literary ambitions she answered that she wanted ‘‘all things in life more than to be a writer travel, dancing, living, the freedom to paint.’’ When she returned to her family estate at Rungstedlund several months later, Dinesen turned to writing as a pleasant diversion.
When Blixen-Finecke abandoned her for a fiance´e eight years younger, Dinesen decided to marry Hans’s twin brother, Bror. Bror is said to have been competitive, the kind of man who would enjoy winning his brother’s sweetheart. This rash determination to reach the object of her desire through a substitute would later be represented allegorically in many of Dinesen’s stories, which deal with the theme of vicarious achievement.
Africa and Syphilis
With the encouragement of relatives, Dinesen and Bror embarked on a grand plan to start a pioneer coffee farm in East Africa. Little is known about their courtship, except that Bror later gave Dinesen credit for the idea of going to Africa. They were married in 1914 in Mombasa, on the coast of British East Africa. They set up housekeeping on seven hundred acres of woodland, twelve miles southwest of Nairobi. The farm lay at an elevation of sixty-two hundred feet, near the Ngong Hills, a range of low mountains forming a barrier against the Rift Valley. Only a year after her marriage, sometime in the early months of 1915, Dinesen learned she had contracted syphilis, a venereal disease. Later she told her family that her husband had given her the illness; he had evidently been unfaithful to her.
The couple separated for a time after this incident. Her letters suggest that she made a suicide attempt in February of that year. Several weeks later she turned up in Paris, looking for a specialist in venereal diseases. She eventually made her way through war-torn Europe back to Denmark, where a venerealogist found her to be suffering from syphilis and poisoning from the treatment (mercury tablets, an earlier form of syphilis treatment) given to her in Nairobi. Through a series of injections of intravenous arsenic Dinesen grew better. Reexaminations in 1919 and 1925 revealed no further evidence of syphilis; however, despite the doctor’s assurances, Dinesen continued to believe she would never recover from the illness. Syphilis appears time and again in Dinesen’s writings and features prominently in the popular myth that gathered around her after she rose to literary prominence. She could not escape the irony that she had been victimized by the same illness that had led to her father’s suicide. Read the rest of this entry