Writer’s Note: Often when I see a movie based on a book that I have read, I am disappointed. Somehow the author’s original words get lost in the transition to a screenplay. Occasionally, however, I find delight in both “versions” — the original book and the movie that followed.
Such was the case with the blockbuster movie from the 1980’s, Out of Africa, which was based in part on a memoir by the same name by Danish author, Isak Dinesen (pseudonym used by Karen Dinesen). After thoroughly enjoying the film, I decided to read Dinesen’s memoir of him.
I was surprised by what I read there, but not disappointed. Karen lived in Kenya only 17 of her 77 years, and yet that experience colored the rest of her life. It was the inspiration for what many argue was her greatest literary achievement: Out of Africa. — GP
Karen Christence Dinesen was born in Denmark in 1885. Her father, Wilhelm Dinesen, was a major influence throughout her life even though he died by suicide when she was only 9. Her mother, Ingeborg Westenholz, remained a constant presence through much of Karen’s life .
Childhood ranged from nearly idyllic to harshly tragic for the Dinesen children. Because both parents came from well-to-do Danish families, the children enjoyed privileges. There was unequal treatment, however, based on the culture and gender of the children.
Karen’s brothers were formally educated; Karen was educated at home by her maternal grandmother and her Aunt Bess (who engaged Karen in long discussions about both relationships between men and women as well as women’s rights). From Aunt Bess, Karen developed her independence from her.
Danish folktales and Norse sagas were Karen’s favorites and helped develop her mystic sense and her ability to “tell a story” — a quality that was very evident in the movie version Out of Africa. Moviegoers may remember Finch Hatton and Barkley being entranced by Karen’s ability to create a story when given only a few sentences as a beginning. Karen had begun creating stories as a teenager to entertain her younger siblings. At 20, she published several of hers using the pseudonym “Osceola” — the name of her father’s favorite dog.
Karen attended a prestigious art school in Copenhagen and then continued studies at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. In addition, she traveled to major European capitals to further her studies. She and her family de ella frequently spent holidays in Sweden with the Blixen-Finecke family (her father’s cousin’s clan). There she fell in love with Swedish aristocrat and second cousin Baron Hans Blixen-Finecke, an Olympian equestrian. He did not love her and married another of her. To the surprise of many, Karen then announced her engagement from her to Hans’ brother, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke. It was to be a marriage of convenience for both.
Financed by family through a family corporation, Karen and Bror bought a coffee farm in British East Africa (now known as Kenya). Bror had attended an agricultural college and had farm management experience, so all had high hopes for success.
The coffee farm was never truly successful, and shortfalls from it were covered by the family back in Denmark. There were many reasons for the failures — crops didn’t make because the farm’s elevation was too high to grow coffee, drought, the Depression which made the price of coffee drop, and Bror’s boredom with both the farm and the marriage. When Bror became interested in other women and began a career as a big game hunter, Karen was left in charge.
Out of Africa offers an excellent description of the frustrations that Karen felt. As in the movie, she never knew when Bror might return from safari so she could not depend on him for any kind of sustained help. The start of WWI and its impact on Africa further complicated things. Bror joined the war effort, serving with Lord Delamere’s patrols (Delamere was central to East Africa’s working agricultural economy) along Kenya’s border with German-held Tanganyika. In the movie, significant attention is paid to Karen’s assembling an oxen train with supplies to take to the patrol. This is confirmed in the book.
In 1918, Karen met English big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton. Over the next several years as her marriage dissolved, Karen fell in love with Denys. Their love story is the centerpiece of Out of Africa, but plays a much smaller role in her memoir of her. I especially enjoyed the way the memoir offered context for the movie’s love story.
Denys died in his early 40’s in a plane crash while on safari. The movie’s finale includes his burial of him, orchestrated by Karen, on an overlook facing the Ngong Hills. Karen reads a poem by AE Housman, “To an Athlete Dying Young”, at the burial. By contrast, the memoir indicates that Karen had no role in the funeral beyond preparing the gravesite for the coffin. Interestingly, the historical record indicates that the plane crash ended in a massive fire, leaving nothing behind except ashes. Why, then, is a coffin mentioned in both? Scholars are undecided.
With this tragic death and the mounting farm debt, the family corporation sold the farm to a land developer. The developer offered to allow Karen to remain in the house, but she declined. She was ready to go home.
In her late 40’s, Karen returned to live on her mother’s family estate. Although she left Africa, it never left her. Several years before she moved home, Ella Karen had begun writing a book. She completed it two years after returning to Denmark, writing in her study of her surrounded by artifacts brought home from Africa. This first book, Seven Gothic Tales, was published in 1934 under the pseudonym “Isak Dinesen”.
Seven Gothic Tales was published first in the United States. Her publisher of her refused to give Karen an advance and also tried to talk her out of using a pseudonym. Karen refused, citing the Biblical Sarah’s de ella naming her late and unexpected child “Isaac”. Karen said that her writing career was similarly late and unexpected, so “Isak” (Danish form of “Isaac”) was perfectly appropriate.
The book received good reviews and was selected as a Book-of-the-Month Club offering. Sales were strong, but the Danes were offended.
The book had been published in English and in the US before Denmark. Karen had written the book in English because she thought it would be more lucrative, but she had inadvertently offended her homeland. She immediately translated the work into Danish herself.
She also learned a valuable lesson: all books were published in Danish subsequent first, or simultaneously with English. Her second book, Out of Africa, was an immediate success. Truman Capote said that it was “…one of the most beautiful books of the 20th century”. Once again, her book was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. The memoir was a collection of interrelated stories recounting her 17 years of her in Africa.
Karen went on to write a number of works. Winter’s Tales, a collection of short stories, was her third and her third Book-of-the-Month Club selection. In an interesting sleight-of-hand, she next published The Angelic Avengers using the French pseudonym “Pierre Andrezel”.
This work, a clever satire about Nazi-occupied Denmark during WWII, wasn’t claimed by Dinesen until 12 years after its publication. She called it her “illegitimate child”.
Other books followed — Last Tales, Anecdotes of Destiny, and Shadows on the Grass — all under the pseudonym “Isak Dinesen”. The latter was a collection of new stories about Africa, the first such collection since her memoir de ella. All were successful.
As she became more well known, Karen became reclusive and eccentric. The reasons for these changes are many. One theory is that she suffered from heavy metal poisoning as a result of “cures” for syphilis that she had caught during the first year of her marriage de ella. Bror’s philandering had come home to her in a most direct way.
She was treated with mercury and arsenic, the preferred treatment for syphilis at the time. Another theory is that her lifelong heavy smoking de ella had taken a toll. She also developed a peptic ulcer and may have sustained an injury during surgery for that.
Many scholars find evidence of anorexia nervosa. Whatever the cause, she became disturbingly thin and refused to eat anything other than oysters (or asparagus, if the oysters were unavailable), white grapes, and champagne.
In 1959, Karen traveled for the only time to the United States. From January to April, she was interviewed and feted. A feature in Life Magazine alerted the public to her presence. She was invited to dine with Babe Paley and Gloria Vanderbilt, and was the guest of honor at a cocktail party in her honor hosted by John Steinbeck. She enjoyed visits with Pearl Buck, ee cummings, and Marianne Moore.
A highlight of her visit was a dinner for Karen hosted by Carson McCullers with Arthur Miller and his wife, Marilyn Monroe.
Karen died two years later and was buried at her ancestral home. She was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, 1957, and 1962, but didn’t win. When Earnest Hemingway won the Nobel, he said that Ella Karen deserved the prize more than he did.
Isak Dinesen once wrote, “God made the world round so we would never be able to see too far down the road.” Prophetic words for her own life, wouldn’t you say?