Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010
Dinesen, Isak (Karen Christence Dinesen, Baroness Karen Blixen, Baroness Blixen- Finecke, Pierne Andrezel)
Dinesen, Isak (Karen Christence Dinesen, Baroness Karen Blixen, Baroness Blixen- Finecke, Pierne Andrezel) (1885-1962) Danish storyteller and memoirist
A wartime memoirist and doyenne of FABLE, fantasy, and horror tales, Isak Dinesen surveyed the cultural upheaval before, during, and after World War I. Born Karen Christence Dinesen in Rungsted, Denmark, to Ingeborg Westenholz and Wilhelm Dinesen, she was schooled at home before enrolling at Miss Sode's Art School and the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen. On the eve of global conflict, she married, at age 29, a Swedish noble, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke. The couple purchased a 6,000-acre coffee plantation in British East Africa (present-day Kenya) at the base of the Ngong hills outside Nairobi, but they separated in 1921 and divorced in 1925. Dinesen survived the divorce and the exigencies of colonial life—vener- al disease, border wars and the postwar foundering of the coffee market—with an altruistic attitude toward the shuffling of small nations among powermongers and profiteers.
To the delight of native audiences, Dinesen was a teller of tales in the folkloric tradition, and she mastered oral fiction and popular GOTHIC conventions in English and Swahili. On her return to Denmark in 1931, financially ruined, she wrote the best-selling allegorical collection Seven Gothic Tales (1934), which she developed in Kenya and published under the male pseudonym of Isak Dinesen. In “The Monkey,” a prioress's swap of her soul to a demon taps a common motif in the literature of empire—the representation of colonial bestiality in animal form, a motif that can also be found in the writings of Sir ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE, W. W. JACOBS, RUDYARD KIPLING, and ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON. Dinesen followed with two more collections, Winter’s Tales (1942) and Last Tales (1957). In her memoir Out of Africa (1937), describing rural life in Kenya from 1917 to 1931, the author observed the slide of European imperialism into world war. The narrative depicts her farm outside Nairobi as a fragile Eden, a utopian coexistence with nature and with the pastoral Kikuyu tribespeople, whose survival depended on the British creation of the Kikuyu Reserve. Dinesen's romanticized view of serene cultural relations derived from residence on her farm of the Somali Muslim majordomo Farah Aden, the Kikuyu cook-trainee Kamante Gatura, the Danish storyteller old Knudsen, and the Kashmiri blacksmith Pooran Singh. Like Rudyard Kipling in India and the Welsh educator ANNA LEONOWENS in Siam, Dinesen felt welcome in the African environment but ambivalent toward the proposed colonization of the indigenous Kikuyu and Masai and toward the professional big-game hunting popularized in the adventure fiction of H. RIDER HAGGARD. She treated local tribespeople with motherly medical care and defended blacks against British racism, particularly the impressment of Kenyans for the Carrier Corps, porters for the army. Critics vary in their interpretations of Dinesen's relationship with Africans. The most damning refer to her benevolence as a benign feudalism, an issue that Indian journalist SANTHA RAMA RAU covers in “The Trial of Jomo Kenyatta” (1976).
Civil Rights at Issue
Like OLIVE SCHREINER’S The Story of an African Farm (1883) and G. B. Lancaster’s A Spur to Smite(1906), Dinesen’s memoir Out of Africa reveals her distaste for European condescension and her advocacy for local civil rights, including the right to purchase land. Because of the British fear of armed uprising, tribe members lost the right to bear arms, even to hunt for food or to protect themselves from snakes and predatory animals. Dinesen states that the bumbling of white outsiders proves the racial superiority of Kenyans, and she asserts, “It is more than their land that you take away from the people, whose Native land you take. It is their past as well, their roots and their identity” (Dinesen 1985, 359). English locals ostracize her for promoting education and a tribal court system and for siding with natives against police. The Kikuyu honor her as an incarnation of the earth mother for allowing black squatters to live free on her acreage. In deference to their traditional homeland, she considers herself the head squatter. The critic Susan R. Horton typifies the farm project as “living on the slash” that separates black/white, African/European, and male/female (quoted in Brantly 2002, 92). Dinesen’s dispossession prefatory to returning to Denmark increases her sympathies with blacks ousted from their homelands by European opportunists.
In 1985, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep played hunter and safari guide Denys FinchHatton and farm manager Karen Blixen in the film Out of Africa, which revived interest in the author’s storytelling and memoirs. A third character, Felicity, represents the author and pilot Beryl Markham, a resident of British East Africa, author of the memoir West with the Night (1942), and friend to Dinesen (see AUTOBIOGRAPHY) .
Dinesen picked up the strand of Out of Africa in Shadows on the Grass (1960), a collection of vignettes. Nostalgically, she remarks on departing for British East Africa before World War I “where the Highlands were still in very truth the happy hunting grounds, and while the white pioneers lived in guileless harmony with the children of the land” (Dinesen 1985, 414). She describes white pioneers as “country-bred and open-air people” who enjoy roughing it in the wild (415). She characterizes the white-black friendships as a “Hawkeye- Chingachgook fellowship” (415), a reference to James Fennimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, an American frontier cycle describing the annihilation of forest Indian tribes by colonials invading the northeastern United States. She regrets that, after World War I, officers received plots of Kenyan land that ill-suit their lifestyles. Another setback, the German occupation of Denmark in April 1940, ends her communication with friends in Africa. She refers to the persecution of Danish Jews and the rescue of many by Swedes. At the withdrawal of Nazi troops in May 1945, she declares, “We all began to rise from our sham graves” (491).
Fairy Tale and Fable
During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, under the pseudonym Pierre Andrezel, Dinesen wrote an anti-Nazi thriller, The Angelic Avengers (1944), which she tinged with fairy-tale touches of blasphemy, silencing, starvation, hexes, diabolism, slavery, cellar vaults, hangings, and cannibalism. She smuggled the manuscript out of German-occupied territory for publication and had it translated into English in 1946. A surprisingly popular allegory chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, the tale excoriates the Nazi empire as indecent for its atrocities against innocents, symbolized by the orphaned characters Lucan Bellenden and Zosine Tabbernor. In the words of the villain, Reverend Pennhallow, “The evil of this world is mighty, an abyss, a deep sea that cannot be emptied with a spoon, or by any human acts or measures” (Dinesen 1946, 262). By depicting the girls, one bourgeois and one an aristocrat, as bonding to defeat the corrupt Pennhallow, their common adversary, Dinesen proposes unity among Europeans of all classes to defeat Hitler’s scheme of a world empire.
Three years before her death from arsenic treatments for syphilis, Dinesen composed an allegorical fable, Babette’s Feast (1959). Set at a Norwegian fjord, during the Second French Empire under Napoleon III, when Norway was a protectorate of Sweden, the tale features the graciousness of a female exile who wins the French lottery. The story depicts displacement and redemption through cooking and feasting, a symbolic eucharist. A displaced person set adrift amid Lutheran cant and local disgruntlement, Babette makes the most of her individualism, an assuagement to the rootless exile. To questions of her ultimate pennilessness, she remarks, “Poor? … No, I shall never be poor. I told you that I am a great artist. A great artist, Mesdames, is never poor. We have something, Mesdames, of which other people know nothing” (Dinesen 1953, 47). In 1988, the film version of the fable, starring Stephane Audran in the title role, won an Oscar and a BAFTA award for best foreign-language film as well as much acclaim for how it depicted the unification of a community with a splendid meal.
Dinesen also examined empire in works published posthumously. In “Oration at a Bonfire, Fourteen Years Late,” collected in Daguerreotypes and Other Essays (1984), she salutes female imperialists—Maria Theresa, Elizabeth I, and Queen Victoria—for expanding their holdings and for imprinting their respective historical epochs with a woman's name. Feminism aside, she admits the irreversible wrongs of colonizing. In the essay “Letters from a Land at War,” she regrets the change in German East Africa (present-day Tanzania) after World War I: “Much water has gone over the dam and much blood into the earth since then, and those times have not returned” (Dinesen 1984, 92).
See also FRONTIER LITERATURE.
Brantly, Susan. Understanding Isak Dinesen. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.
Dinesen, Isak. Anecdotes of Destiny. London: Michael Joseph, 1958.
------- . The Angelic Avengers. London: Putnam, 1946. . Babette’s Feast and Other Anecdotes of Destiny.
New York: Vintage Books, 1953.
----- . Daguerreotypes and Other Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
----- . Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass. New York: Vintage, 1985.
Hansen, Frantz Leander. The Aristocratic University of Karen Blitzen: Destiny and the Denial of Fate. Eastbourne, U.K.: Sussex Academic Press, 2003.