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Isak Dinesen (April 17, 1885 – September 7, 1962) was the pen name of the Danish author best known for Out of Africa (1937), a memoir of her life as the owner of a coffee plantation in Kenya. Karen von Blixen-Finecke, née Karen Christenze Dinesen was born a Baroness into a family of aristocrats, merchants, and landed gentry. Her father was a peripatetic traveler, military man, politician, and writer who committed suicide when Karan was just nine years old.
Karen showed an early interest in writing, creating stories, plays, and poetry. After some early success in publishing stories, she put writing aside. In 1903 she started to study art in Copenhagen, much to her family’s disapproval.
Marriage, a coffee plantation, and a love affair
Karen became engaged to Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, a second cousin, in 1912. Upon their arrival in Mombassa, Kenya, they were married, and together, they ran a coffee plantation. Not long after, she discovered that she had contracted syphilis from her husband, which would continue to be an underlying condition for much of her life. She returned to Europe briefly in 1915 to be treated, then returned to Africa. She and her husband bought a larger farm not far from Nairobi.
Her seventeen years in Kenya, or what was then called British East Africa, became the basis of what remains her best-known work, the memoir Out of Africa (1937). It begins with the simple yet memorable line: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”
It was in the midst of this that Karen fell in love with Denys Finch-Hatton, a British soldier and planter. Their turbulent affair has been immortalized in the 1985 film, Out of Africa, starring an accurately accented Meryl Streep, with Robert Redford as Finch-Hatton.
Out of Africa, Dinesen’s best-known work, a memoir
became an award-winning 1985 film of the same name
On her own, and the start of a writing career
In 1921, Bror Blixen left Karen and shortly thereafter, they divorce. She continued her on-again, off-again affair with Finch-Hatton until his death in a plane crash in 1929. It left her devastated. She stayed in Africa until 1931, running the farm on her own after Blixen left, despite financial difficulties and drought. When the farm’s fortunes collapsed in 1931, she retured to her family home in Denmark.
Soon after returning to Denmark Karen began to use the nom de plume Isak Dinesen. In 1934, Seven Gothic Tales, a collection of stories she had written in English. Of the stories, she said: “Reality had met me … in such an ugly shape, that I have no wish to come into contact with it again. Somewhere in me a dark fear was still crouching and I took refuge within the fantastic like a distressed child in his book of fairy tales.”
Seven Gothic Tales became a surprising success in the U.S., even becoming a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection. It was followed, as mentioned above, by Out of Africa (1937).
Isak Dinesen’s most enduring work, Out of Africa
Building on her reputation as Isak Dinesen, she produced a number of well-regarded books, continuing mainly with short-form fiction and memoir. These included Winter’s Tales (1942), Last Tales (1957), and Shadows on the Grass (1960). The latter is also a memoir of her years in Africa. Ehrengard, a novella, was published posthumously in 1963.
Isak Dinesen page on Amazon
Isak Dinesen continued to suffer from the effect of syphilis into her later years. Her treatments had contained the illness, but never completely cured it. Despite her frailty, she was able to enjoy a long visit to the United States in 1959. It was during this time that she met Carson McCullers, and the two authors had an extravagant lunch at McCuller’s home in Nyack, New York that included Marilyn Monroe.
Stomach ulcers and anxiety also plagued the author throughout the years. When she died at age 77 in 1962 at Rungstedlund, her family estate, the cause was thought to be malnutrition.
You might also like:
Isak Dinesen Quotes on Life and Storytelling
More about Isak Dinesen on this site
- Out of Africa
- Seven Gothic Tales
- Winter’s Tales
- Last Tales
- Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales
Biographies about Isak Dinesen
Articles, News, Etc.
- Karen Blixen Museum – Nairobi, Kenya
- Karen Blixen Museum – Rungstedlund, Denmark
- Karen Blixen Coffee Garden – Niarobi, Kenya
Marilyn Monroe, Isak Dinesen, and Carson McCullers
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