Karen Blixen

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Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke
Karen Blixen.jpg
Karen Blixen in 1957
Born 17 April 1885
Rungsted, Denmark
Died 7 September 1962(1962-09-07) (aged 77)
Rungsted, Denmark
Occupation Writer
Notable works Out of Africa, Seven Gothic Tales, Shadows on the Grass, Babette's Feast

Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke (Danish: [kʰɑːɑn ˈb̥leɡ̊sn̩]; 17 April 1885 – 7 September 1962), née Karen Christenze Dinesen, was a Danish author, also known by the pen name Isak Dinesen, who wrote works in Danish, French and English. She also at times used the pen names Tania Blixen, Osceola, and Pierre Andrézel.

Blixen is best known for Out of Africa, an account of her life while living in Kenya, and for one of her stories, Babette's Feast, both of which have been adapted into Academy Award-winning motion pictures. She is also noted for her Seven Gothic Tales, particularly in Denmark.

Though considered several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Blixon was one of the writers who never won the prestigious award.


Karen Blixen photographed in 1913

Early years[edit]

The Mattrup seat farm, 1861
Karen Blixen with her brother Thomas on the family farm in Kenya in the 1920s

Karen Dinesen was born in the manor house of Rungstedlund, north of Copenhagen, the daughter of Ingeborg (née Westenholz 1856–1939) whose grandfather Andreas Nicolai Hansen (1798–1873) had been a successful Copenhagen merchant, and Wilhelm Dinesen (1845–1895), a writer and army officer from a family of Jutland landowners.[1] The second oldest in a family of three sisters and two brothers, her younger brother, Thomas Dinesen, grew up to win the Victoria Cross in the First World War. Her mother Ingeborg came from a wealthy Unitarian bourgeois merchant family, unlike her father who had an aristocratic background closely connected to the monarchy, the established church and conservative politics.[2]

Dinesen's early years had been strongly influenced by her father Wilhelm Dinesen, thanks to his relaxed manner and his love of the outdoor life.[3] From August 1872 to December 1873, he had lived among the Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin, where he fathered a daughter. On returning to Denmark, he suffered from syphilis which resulted in bouts of deep depression.[4] After conceiving a child out of wedlock with his maid Anna Rasmussen, he was devastated by breaking his promise to his puritanical mother-in-law, 'Mama' Mary Lucinde Westenholz, to remain faithful to his wife Ingeborg. As a result, he hanged himself on 28 March 1895 when Dinesen was almost ten.[5]

After her father's death, Dinesen's life at Rungstedlund changed significantly, now dominated by the Westenholz family. Unlike her brothers who attended school, she was educated at home by her maternal grandmother and by her aunt, Mary Westenholz, who brought her up in the staunch Unitarian tradition.[2] During her early years, she spent part of her time at her mother's family home, the Mattrup seat farm near Horsens, while in later years she there were visits to Folehavegård, an estate near Hørsholm which had belonged to her father's faily. Longing for the freedom she had enjoyed when her father was alive, she was able to find some satisfaction in telling her younger sister Ellen hair-raising good-night stories, partly inspired by Danish folk tales and Icelandic sagas. In 1905, these led to her Grjotgard Ålvesøn og Aud in which her literary talent began to emerge. Around this time, she also published fiction in Danish periodicals under the pseudonym Osceola.[2][3]

In 1898, Dinesen and her two sisters spent a year in Switzerland where she learnt to speak French with the same ease as she had acquired English at home. In 1902, she attended Charlotte Sode's art school in Copenhagen before continuing her studies at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts under Viggo Johansen (1903–06).[3] In her mid-twenties, she also visited Paris, London and Rome on study trips. While still young, Dinesen spent many of her holidays with her paternal cousin's family, the Blixen-Fineckes, in Skåne in the south of Sweden. She first fell madly in love with the dashing equestrian Hans but he did not reciprocate. She therefore decided to accept the favours of his twin brother, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, announcing their engagement on 23 December 1912 to the family's general surprise. Given the difficulties both were experiencing in settling in Denmark, the family suggested they should move abroad. Their common uncle, Aage Westenholz (1859–1935) who had made a fortune in Siam, suggested they should go to Kenya to start a coffee farm. He and his sister Ingeborg Dinesen invested 150,000 Danish crowns in the venture.[2][6] Early in 1913, Bror Blixen-Finecke left for Kenya, followed by his financée in December.[3]

Life in Kenya[edit]

Blixen's African home, now the Karen Blixen Museum

Soon after Dinesen arrived in Kenya, which at the time was part of British East Africa, she and Blixen married in Mombassa on January 14, 1914.[7] The Karen Coffee Company was established by Aage Westerholz, who chose the name after his daughter Karen, Blixen's cousin, rather than to create an association with Karen Blixen.[4] The couple soon established their first farm, M'Bagathi, in the Great Lakes area, but quickly ran into difficulties caused by the outbreak of the First World War. Fighting between the Germans and British in East Africa led to a shortage of workers and supplies. Nevertheless, in 1916, the Karen Coffee Company purchased a larger farm, M'Bogani, near the Ngong Hills to the north of Nairobi. It covered 6,000 acres of land, of which 600 were used for a coffee plantation. The remainder were used by the natives for grazing while 2,000 acres of virgin forest were left untouched.[3] The couple hired local workers, predominantly the Kikuyu people who lived on the farmlands at the time of their arrival but there were also Wakamba, Kavirondo, Swahili and Masai.[8] About the couple's early life in the African Great Lakes region, Karen Blixen later wrote,

Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for all conventions, here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams![9]

Karen Blixen and her husband were quite different in education and temperament, and Bror Blixen was unfaithful to his wife. She was diagnosed with syphilis toward the end of their first year of marriage in 1915.[8] According to her biographer Judith Thurman, she contracted the disease from her husband.[10] She returned to Denmark in June 1915 for treatment which proved successful. Although Blixen's illness was eventually cured (some uncertainty exists), it created medical anguish for years to come. By 1919, the marriage had run into serious difficulties, causing her husband to request a divorce in 1920. Against her wishes, the couple separated in 1921, and were officially divorced in 1925.[7] After Aage Westenholz had dismissed Bror Blixen as chair of the Karen Coffee Company, Karen Blixen took over its management.[8]

Denys Finch Hatton, around 1910–1920

In 1918, Karen Blixen met the English big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (1887–1931), an English army officer and aristocrat. After her separation from her husband she and Finch Hatton developed a close friendship which eventually became a long-term love affair. In a letter to her brother Thomas in 1924, she wrote: "I believe that for all time and eternity I am bound to Denys, to love the ground he walks upon, to be happy beyond words when he is here, and to suffer worse than death many times when he leaves..."[11]

Finch Hatton used Blixen's farmhouse as a home base between 1926 and 1931, when on safari with his clients. He died in the crash of his de Havilland Gipsy Moth biplane in March 1931. At the same time, the failure of the coffee plantation, as a result of mismanagement, the height of the farm, drought and the falling price of coffee caused by the worldwide economic depression, forced Blixen to abandon her beloved estate.[3][12] The family corporation sold the land to a residential developer, and Blixen returned Denmark in August 1931 to live with her mother. She remained in Rungstedlund for the rest of her life.[8]

Life as a writer[edit]

Jurij Moskvitin (middle) accompanying Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen (right) meeting composer Igor Stravinsky (left) at the Copenhagen City Hall in 1959

On returning to Denmark, Blixen began writing in earnest. Her first book, Seven Gothic Tales, was published in the US in 1934 under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen.[12] This first book, highly enigmatic and more metaphoric than Gothic, won great recognition, and publication of the book in Great Britain and Denmark followed. Her second book, now the best known of her works, was Out of Africa, published in 1937, and its success firmly established her reputation as an author. She was awarded the Tagea Brandt Rejselegat (a Danish prize for women in the arts or academic life) in 1939.

During World War II, when Denmark was occupied by the Germans, Blixen started her only full-length novel, the introspective tale The Angelic Avengers, under another pseudonym, Pierre Andrezel; it was published in 1944. The horrors experienced by the young heroines were interpreted as an allegory of Nazism.[12]

Her writing during most of the 1940s and 1950s consisted of tales in the storytelling tradition.[12] The most famous is "Babette's Feast", about a chef who spends her entire 10,000-franc lottery prize to prepare a final, spectacular gourmet meal. The Immortal Story was adapted to the screen in 1968 by Orson Welles, a great admirer of Blixen's work and life. Welles later attempted to film The Dreamers, but only a few scenes were ever completed.

She published tale collections also after Seven Gothic Tales: Winter’s Tales (1942; Vinter-eventyr), Last Tales (1957; Sidste fortællinger), Anecdotes of Destiny (1958). Writing despite severe illness, Blixen finished the African sketches Shadows on the Grass in 1960.[13] Her posthumously published works include Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales (1977), Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays (1979) and Letters from Africa, 1914–31 (1981).[12]

Blixen's tales follow a traditional style of storytelling, and most take place against the background of the 19th century or earlier periods. Concerning her deliberately old-fashioned style, Blixen mentioned in several interviews that she wanted to express a spirit that no longer existed in modern times, that of destiny and courage. Indeed, many of her ideas can be traced back to those of Romanticism. Blixen's concept of the art of the story is perhaps most directly expressed in the story "The Cardinal's First Tale" from her fifth book, Last Tales.

Though Danish, Blixen wrote her books in English and then translated her work into her native tongue.[12] Critics describe her English as having unusual beauty.[who?] Dorothy Canfield described "The Angelic Avengers" in her Book-of-the-Month Club News review, as "of superlatively fine literary quality, written with distinction in an exquisite style".[14] Her later books usually appeared simultaneously in both Danish and English.[12] As an author, she kept her public image as a charismatic, mysterious old Baroness with an insightful third eye, and established herself as an inspiring figure in Danish culture, although shunning the mainstream.

Blixen was widely respected by contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote, and during her tour of the United States in 1959, writers who visited her included Arthur Miller, E. E. Cummings, and Pearl Buck. She also met actress Marilyn Monroe with her husband Arthur Miller. The socialite Babe Paley gave a lunch in her honour at St.Regis with Truman and Cecil Beaton as guests, and Gloria Vanderbilt gave her a dress by Mainbocher. The photographer Richard Avedon took one of his famous pictures of her during her stay in New York. She was admired by Cecil Beaton and the patron Pauline de Rothschild of the Rothschild family.

She was awarded the Danish Ingenio et Arti medal in 1950.[15] Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, described it as "a mistake" that Blixen was not awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature during the 1930s.[16] Although never awarded the prize, she finished in third place behind Graham Greene in 1961, the year Ivo Andrić was awarded the prize.[17] In 2012, the Nobel records were opened after 50 years and it was revealed that Blixen was among a shortlist of authors considered for the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature, along with John Steinbeck (the eventual winner), Robert Graves, Lawrence Durrell, and Jean Anouilh. Blixen became ineligible after dying in September of that year.[18]

Illness and death[edit]

Karen Blixen's grave in Rungstedlund, Denmark

Although it was widely believed that syphilis continued to plague Blixen throughout her lifetime, extensive tests were unable to reveal evidence of syphilis in her system after 1925. Her writing prowess suggests that she did not suffer from the mental degeneration of late stages of syphilis. She did suffer a mild permanent loss of sensation in her legs that could be attributed to use of the arsenic-based anti-syphilis drug salvarsan.

Others attribute her weight loss and eventual death to anorexia nervosa.[19]

During the 1950s Blixen's health quickly deteriorated, and in 1955 she had a third of her stomach removed because of an ulcer. Writing became impossible, although she did several radio broadcasts.

In her analysis of Blixen's medical history, Linda Donelson points out that Blixen wondered if her pain was psychosomatic even though she blamed it in public on the emotive syphilis: "Whatever her belief about her illness, the disease suited the artist's design for creating her own personal legend."[20]

Unable to eat, Blixen died in 1962 at Rungstedlund, her family's estate, at the age of 77, apparently of malnutrition.[21][22] The source of her abdominal problems remains unknown, although gastric syphilis, manifested by gastric ulcers during secondary and tertiary syphilis, remains a possibility.

Rungstedlund Museum[edit]

The Karen Blixen Museum in Rungstedlund, Denmark

Blixen lived most of her life at the family estate Rungstedlund, which was acquired by her father in 1879. The property is located in Rungsted, 24 kilometres (15 mi) north of Copenhagen, Denmark's capital. The oldest parts of the estate date to 1680, and it had been operated as both an inn and a farm. Most of Blixen's writing was done in Ewald's Room, named after author Johannes Ewald. The property is managed by the Rungstedlund Foundation, founded by Blixen and her siblings. It was opened to the public as a museum in 1991. In 2013 The Karen Blixen Museum joined the Nordic museum portal CultureNordic.com.


The Nairobi suburb that stands on the land where Blixen farmed coffee is now named Karen. Blixen herself declared in her later writings that "the residential district of Karen" was "named after me".[23] And Blixen's biographer, Judith Thurman, was told by the developer who bought the farm from the family corporation that he planned to name the district after Blixen. A few thousand feet from her home is a street named Ndege (bird / aeroplane) Road, which was named after the place where Finch-Hatton used to land his plane.

Blixen was known to her friends not as "Karen" but as "Tanne". The family corporation that owned her farm was incorporated as the "Karen Coffee Company". The chairman of the board was her uncle, Aage Westenholz,[24] who may have named the company after his own daughter Karen. However, the developer seems to have named the district after its famous author/farmer rather than the name of her company.

There is a Karen Blixen Coffee House and Museum in the district of Karen, located near Blixen's former home.

Karen Blixen's portrait was featured on the front of the Danish 50-krone banknote, 1997 series, from 7 May 1999 to 25 August 2005.[25][26] She also featured on Danish postage stamps that were issued in 1980[27] and 1996.[28]


Blixen's great-nephew, Anders Westenholz, was also an accomplished writer, and has written books about her and her literature, among other things.


I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. – Out of Africa, 1937

To be lonely is a state of mind, something completely other than physical solitude; when modern authors rant about the soul's intolerable loneliness, it is only proof of their own intolerable emptiness. – Out of Africa, 1937

I know the cure for everything: Salt water...in one form or another: Sweat, tears or the sea.– The Deluge at Norderney, Seven Gothic Tales, 1934

When in the end, the day came on which I was going away, I learned the strange learning that things can happen which we ourselves cannot possibly imagine, either beforehand, or at the time when they are taking place, or afterwards when we look back on them." – Out of Africa, 1937

He belonged to the olden days, and I have never met another German who has given me so strong an impression of what Imperial Germany was and stood for." – About General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, German commander during the East Africa Campaign.[29]

Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost!" – "Babette's Feast", 1953


Some of Blixen's works were published posthumously, including tales previously removed from earlier collections and essays she wrote for various occasions.

  • The Hermits (1907, published in Tilskueren under the name Osceola)[30]
  • The Ploughman (1907, published in a Danish journal under the name Osceola)
  • The de Cats Family (1909, published in Tilskueren)
  • The Revenge of Truth (1926, published in Denmark)
  • Seven Gothic Tales (1934 in USA, 1935 in Denmark)
  • Out of Africa (1937 in Denmark and England, 1938 in USA)
  • Winter's Tales (1942)
  • The Angelic Avengers (1946)
  • Last Tales (1957)
  • Anecdotes of Destiny (1958) (including Babette's Feast)[31]
  • Shadows on the Grass (1960 in England and Denmark, 1961 in USA)
  • Ehrengard (posthumous 1963, USA)
  • Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales (posthumous 1977, USA)
  • Daguerreotypes and Other Essays (posthumous 1979, USA)
  • On Modern Marriage and Other Observations (posthumous 1986, USA)
  • Letters from Africa, 1914–1931 (posthumous 1981, USA)
  • Karen Blixen in Danmark: Breve 1931–1962 (posthumous 1996, Denmark)
  • Karen Blixen i Afrika. En brevsamling, 1914–31 i IV bind (posthumous 2013, Denmark)

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Jørgensen & Juhl 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d Engberg 2003.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Wivel 2013.
  4. ^ a b Schmidt-Madsen 2012, pp. 18-23.
  5. ^ Winther 2015.
  6. ^ Bjerg 2014.
  7. ^ a b Isaacson 1991, p. 319.
  8. ^ a b c d Karen Blixen Museet 2016.
  9. ^ Hannah 1971, p. 207.
  10. ^ Thurman 1983, p. 150.
  11. ^ Wheeler 2010, p. 153.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Encyclopædia Britannica 2016.
  13. ^ The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed 2015.
  14. ^ Stambaugh 1998.
  15. ^ Jensen 2010.
  16. ^ Rising & Ritter 2010.
  17. ^ Flood 2012.
  18. ^ Flood 2013.
  19. ^ Stuttaford 2007.
  20. ^ Donelson 2010.
  21. ^ The New York Times 1962.
  22. ^ Updike 1986, p. 1.
  23. ^ Dinesen, Isak, Shadows on the Grass, from the combined Vintage International Edition of Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass, New York 1989, p. 458.
  24. ^ Thurman, Judith, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, St. Martin's Press, 1983, p. 141
  25. ^ The coins and banknotes of Denmark (PDF). Danmarks Nationalbank. 2005. pp. 14–15. ISBN 87-87251-55-8. Retrieved 7 September 2010. 
  26. ^ "50-krone banknote, 1997 series". Danmarks Nationalbank. Retrieved 7 September 2010. 
  27. ^ "Literary Stamp Collecting". Retrieved 3 April 2014. 
  28. ^ "Post Denmark, Stamps & Philately". Retrieved 3 April 2014. 
  29. ^ Farwell, The Great War in Africa, p. 105.
  30. ^ "Posthumous Publications". Blixen. Retrieved 9 May 2015. 
  31. ^ "Digital commons", JRF, Un Omaha, 16 (2) .


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]