(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.
She spent much of her later life developing a philosophy to cope with the implications of the diagnosis. In 1926 she wrote to her brother Thomas: ‘‘If it did not sound so beastly I might say that, the world being as it is, it was worth having syphilis in order to become a Baroness.’’ Dinesen was later proved right: her disease flared up again later in her life. After spending most of 1915 and 1916 in Denmark, Dinesen reconciled with her husband. They returned to their African farm with a new bankroll provided by her relatives. A series of droughts precluded any profits from the large capital input. Bror was frequently absent from home, chasing other investments. Toward the end of 1918 Dinesen found consolation in a new friendship, with Denys Finch Hatton, an Englishman recently returned from World War I. Shortly after the war ended, Dinesen separated permanently from Bror (they divorced in 1925).
The immediate cause was not Finch Hatton, but Bror’s continuing infidelities. After Bror left, she protected herself from loneliness by writing stories. Several notebooks filled with outlines and jottings survive from her years in Africa; many of these stories were later revised and published in Seven Gothic Tales. In 1924 Finch Hatton began staying in her house while working in Nairobi—a few months out of every year. She miscarried his child in 1922 and another in 1926. He was not interested in marriage. In 1928 he entertained his friend, Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward V until he abdicated and became Duke of Windsor) at her house an event described in Out of Africa. He also bought an airplane and flew Dinesen over her farm, which she describes as her ‘‘most transporting pleasure’’ in Africa.
By 1929 a cascade of events had begun that would bring an end to Dinesen’s farming life. A loan promised by Finch Hatton never materialized. The collapse of major stock markets sent coffee and land prices spiraling downward. Locusts descended on the land, and drought exhausted Dinesen’s last hopes for recovery. Finally, she had to sell the farm to a developer in Nairobi. A few weeks later, on May 14, 1931, Finch Hatton died in an airplane crash. Dinesen looked on Africa for the last time that month and returned to her homeland for good.
Literature for Profit
Once home at Rungstedlund, Dinesen began to write almost immediately, working in her father’s old office. Now, however, her motives were serious. ‘‘I could not see any kind of future before me. And I had no money; my dowry, so to say, had gone with the farm. I owed it to the people on whom I was dependent to try to make some kind of existence for myself. Those Gothic Tales began to demand to be written,’’ she later wrote in Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays. Two years later, at age forty-eight, Dinesen completed her first collection of stories, Seven Gothic Tales.
Although Seven Gothic Tales was written in English, Dinesen experienced some difficulty getting the book into print; few publishers were willing to bet on a debut work by an unknown Danish author. Several British publishers rejected the manuscript before it came across the desk of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a friend of Thomas Dinesen and member of the Book-of-the-Month Club selection committee. Impressed with the collection, Fisher sent it to publisher Robert Haas, who was equally impressed and released Seven Gothic Tales the following year. An aura of mystery surrounded the book’s publication.
When it offered Seven Gothic Tales as its April 1934 selection, the Book-of-the-Month Club newsletter stated simply, ‘‘No clue is available as to the pseudonymic author.’’ Dinesen herself confused matters by preceding her maiden name with a man’s first name—Isak, Hebrew for ‘‘one who laughs.’’ Her true identity was not revealed until over fifty thousand copies of Seven Gothic Tales were in print. With this collection Dinesen began a long and rewarding relationship with American readers, as five of her books became Book-of-the-Month Club selections. In spite of poor health and repeated hospitalizations, Dinesen continued to work on a book of memoirs titled Out of Africa. Considered by many to be the greatest pastoral romance of the twentieth century, Out of Africa enjoyed immediate and lasting critical acclaim, particularly from British and American critics. The book became a hit movie in 1985 and won seven Academy Awards.
Winter’s Tales and Last Tales
In 1940 Dinesen was commissioned by the Copenhagen daily newspaper Politiken to spend a month in Berlin, a month in Paris, and a month in London and to write a series of articles about each city. Although the advent of World War II caused the cancellations of the Paris and London visits, Dinesen’s recollections of Hitler’s Germany were later compiled in the posthumous collection Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays. About this time Dinesen also began work on her second set of stories, although completion of the volume was delayed by complications arising from tertiary syphilis, a late stage of the disease.
Dinesen eventually finished this second collection, and, in 1942, Winter’s Tales, a book that derives its title from one of Shakespeare’s plays, was published in the United States, England, and Denmark. Winter’s Tales, along with Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa, are generally considered to be Dinesen’s masterpieces. Between their publication and the 1957 publication of Last Tales, there was a fifteen-year hiatus during which she published only one book: The Angelic Avengers, a thriller novel released in 1946 under the pseudonym of Pierre Andrezel. Dinesen was never proud of The Angelic Avengers and for many years refused to acknowledge herself as the book’s author. Even after such acknowledgment, Dinesen criticized the book, claiming that she wrote it solely for her own amusement as a diversion from the grim realities of Nazi-occupied Denmark. Although she suffered from chronic spinal syphilis and emaciation, Dinesen continued to lecture and give interviews.
She became a founding member of the Danish Academy in 1960 and died in Rungsted in 1962.