Karen Blixen used several pseudonyms throughout her works. In English-speaking countries, she used adopted the pen-name Isak Dinesen, her first publishers being in the United States and ultimately launching her career as a writer. Writing in both Danish and English, Blixen’s life and literary career sparked complex yet captivating discourses. With the power of hindsight, Blixen’s notoriety is similar to that of Aphra Behn, whose then-progressive approach towards people of different ethnicities has been questioned in the light of post-colonial studies.
To briefly contextualise her works, Blixen married into a coffee plantation in what was known as British East Africa (the plantation itself was south of Nairobi, Kenya). Following an unfaithful marriage, years of medical anguish due to contracting syphilis, divorce, a whirlwind romance with an English hunter which ended in tragedy, and the ultimate dissolution of the coffee plantation in the face of worldwide economic depression in the 1930s, Blixen returned to Rungstedlund in Denmark to pursue a career in writing.
Her most famous work, Out of Africa, is a memoir of her experiences attempting to co-exist with the native African workers on the plantation, as a white European colonist. This is where the issues with Blixen resonate with that of Behn’s: on one hand, Blixen uses racialised language that was acceptable at the time which would now be considered ignorant and vitriolic. On the other, Blixen shows at least the attempt to understand, interact with, and defend indigenous African people (including African nationalist movements), even demonstrating her knowledge of the differences between certain peoples such as the Kikuyu and Maasai that other Europeans neglected in this era.
However, I see this understanding within the larger context of Blixen exploiting African land for cash crops such as coffee within the hierarchies that were formed under the rule of British imperialism; however much she may protest the mindset of the British middle class who occupied these countries, she was in Kenya to engage in the same exploitation. She even admitted that she would never be able to understand the native populations as much as they may understand her.
In terms of the fiction she wrote, Blixen primarily wrote short stories, most of which were set in European countries such as Norway and Denmark. Her most famous short story being Babette’s Feast, which entails the tragedy-stricken French chef, Babette, who organises a decadent feast for a devout Protestant family in Norway. My personal favourites would include Tempests, where the beloved thespian Herr Soerensen travels across Norway with Malli, who are to play Prospero and Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest; Malli’s lack of differentiation between art and reality causes her to be responsible for the death of a sailor after a shipwreck. Another would be The Immortal Story, in which a Scrooge-like Englishman, Mr.Clay, disregards the notion of purely fictitious stories and sets out with his assistant, Elishama, to make an old sailor’s tale come true with the help of a downtrodden actress, Virginie. However, in attempting to eradicate the deceit and novelty of telling imagined stories, Mr. Clay creates a whole new story by trying to create something prophetic out of old sailors’ stories.
Blixen explores the disparity between fiction and reality particularly well, which is why I believe it is worth focussing on her literary works. When we examine the complex and nuanced morality she displayed throughout her life, I remain ambivalent as to whether she is merely a morally bankrupt aristocrat, or a progressive writer considering the time in which she lived. Her literary works earned her a glamorous reputation in Denmark and the United States, and her social impact should be further interrogated.