The following story about Baroness Karen Blixen came into being after reading many of her stories and biographies. Karen’s work reveals the bliss she must have felt in the free air of the Ngong Hills of Kenya. As suggested by physicians, nature plays a vital role in our wellbeing. It’s quite apparent that Africa held Karen together, despite her mental illness and her physical ailments. I’d like to think nature does have such power, but also that Karen’s personality contributed to her strength and courage to survive as well. After seventeen years in Kenya, she returned to Rungstelund, Denmark, her childhood home. Here she found a successful literary career writing under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. This story gives a brief insight into a highly energetic and creative woman.

The Inner Conflicts of Karen Blixen
By Michele Feder

The year of 1914, Karen Dinesen married her second cousin, Bror von Blixon-Finecke. That same year they set sail for British West Africa to purchase a coffee plantation. They settled near the base of the Ngong Hills in Kenya. He was of aristocratic lineage and Karen rather liked the title of Baroness and tried to replicate the stylish life of the rich and privileged. Karen and Bror’s marriage was neither warm nor caring; it seemed more like a desperate excuse for her to leave her banal Denmark home. After a few years they divorced and Karen soon surrendered her love to longtime friend Denys Finch-Hatton. They shared many nights by a fireplace reading poetry, and days listening to classical music on the gramophone Denys had given her. There were also the quiet days Karen spent writing tales and short stories, which were influenced by the natives’ storytelling. Later on, her writing would become significant in the literary world under the name Isak Dinesen. She captured these visions on her farm amidst the low valleys and the high altitudes of the Kenyan Hills - a silhouette gently rising and falling in the sky.

In Africa, Karen found solace and inspiration beneath the flaming sunsets of the red dusty land, with fiery crimson mirrored in her eyes. After her divorce she would spend early evenings with Deny’s flying in a bi-plane high above the hills, the wind comforting their minds and soothing their souls. This became routine before dusk as the golden heavens appeared over winding slopes. Some days they flew low to the reserve and watched lavish gatherings of flamingos around thin rivers and ponds. The plane coasted along the silvery threads of water as pink wings took to flight and the birds flowed into a wild ribbon weaving through the lavender-like setting. Other days were spent on the reserve leisurely observing wildlife; there were the recreational hours spent hunting game, which Karen found exhilarating.

Along with the picturesque moments captured in Kenya there were the difficult days spent on the coffee plantation too. There was the picking and pruning, fertilizing and inspecting each tree for the growth of healthy, mature coffee beans. The heat on Karen’s and her workers’ backs, the sweat dripping from their tired bodies until their wet clothes were matted to their skin. After hours of intense labor in the over-heated valley, the sun fell and a faint breeze touched Karen’s skin - a reminder that the day was about to end. Dark, but still light enough to see the tired expressions of her workers, they returned to their huts as she entered her restored cottage. She lived these days to provide for her workers and for the success of the plantation. Her relationship with Deny’s had its complications as well. Deny’s was frequently distant and aloof, much like Bror. He made himself emotionally unavailable and the wanderlust in him left Karen alone in her Kenya home often.

Overall, life in a cottage tucked away in the remote Ngong Hills sounded romantic, but Karen’s literary works reveal a complex woman with many ailments. Probing deeper into her life, she alludes to the many physical ills and bouts of depression she suffered, not only in her works, but in numerous studies and biographies. Her depression and physical ailments were severe and at times made life grave. She was bedridden for days and weeks at a time; the pain was enough for Karen to contemplate suicide during such hopeless moments. Her days in bed left her dysfunctional for extended periods. A history of bipolar disorder in the Dinesen family is documented in Kay Jamison’s book, Touched with Fire. Karen’s father suffered from bipolar disorder and committed suicide when she was ten. Karen most likely suffered from mental illness as her biographer’s allude to. During these bouts of ill health her workers kept the house and farm in order while caring for Karen.

Karen also struggled as a child, she would refer to her upbringing in bourgeois Denmark as stagnant and banal. She did not have an outlet for her creative energy due to the overbearing and conniving matriarchs on her mother’s side of the family. This was beyond frustrating to a young woman full of vigor and creativity. She once remarked that the family had turned into mummies. But, when Karen refers to the fiery, majestic adopted homeland in Out of Africa and Letters From Africa, she uncovers a well of passion and inspiration that was never fostered as a child. There, she was able to construct a life that would span seventeen years of fulfillment, though her troubles were near.

The harmony of Africa’s environment played a vital role in her wellbeing and nurtured her soul. Ultimately, she turned her attention to religion and fully absorbed the open landscape and wildlife that surrounded her cottage. She reveled in the wilderness as if a magnetic force gripped her, influenced by the organic fundamentalism infused in the native way of life.

Religion became a means for spiritual tranquility. The natives played an equally important role in forming her beliefs. Additionally, she had her own interests in philosophers Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. The backdrop of nature and belief in god gave Karen access to a window of creativity and fulfillment on the farm. She lived by the seasons, as did the natives, which lends a ring of Paganism. Such organic gestures were reflected in the rituals of the natives, such as their prayers to the deities for rain on the hills after long winter droughts. When the rain fell they would shout to the heavens, reveling in gratitude because the gods had finally answered their prayers. Slowly, spring would creep across the earth as dried up reserves transformed into flowing streams. Wildlife gathered around pools of rainwater and vegetation. The anticipation of changing seasons added vitality to the farm; it is apparent that the natives’ deeply rooted beliefs in god and nature are symbiotic. There was the organic process of birth and death, which mirrored the rebirth and passing of each season. Pagan-like rituals such as burials were sacred. It is common to place a body among specially chosen areas of the land. Over time, the decomposed body becomes one with the soil, the trees, the grass and vegetation – solidly bound into the earth.

When Karen moved to Kenya, she found a ramshackle home, which she redesigned, renovated and turned into an oasis nestled in the hills. Over the years, she expanded the cottage into a workplace, as well as a retreat for friends, family and dignitaries, and there was a constant flow of people who passed through her home. There were the sitting areas with large fireplaces that kept the cottage warm during cool Kenyan nights; at the same time, the large veranda that wrapped around a section of the house provided a place to relax and wait for the breeze that would bring respite from the mid-day temperatures. She enjoyed playing Schubert on the gramophone as she dozed on the veranda. She played sonnets as the natives worked the fields; the unfamiliar orchestral instruments filling the air, a civilization from far away. In return, the natives shared their many tribal rituals. Among them was the Ngomas dance of liberation and ecstasy, which had undertones of organic fundamentalism shaping their performances. There was a great fondness between Karen and the natives, especially her relationship with the women. They found her to be generous and somewhat majestic. In turn, she had a tremendous respect for the Kenyan women and their strength.

Blixen brought outdoor living into her cottage, as if a separation between the walls of her home and gardens ceased to exist. The luscious garden became a means of harvesting food that she and her servants would use in the delicious dishes they cooked for guests or simply for themselves.

Karen’s writings affirm her adoration for the Ngong Hills. It seemed as though the hills became a beacon that guided her day after day. They became so momentous and meaningful that she and Denys chose their burial place here -- she remarked that “she wanted to die and sink with the Ngong Hills” -- to be one with the soil she walked upon. When she returned to Denmark in 1936 to pursue her literary career she never returned to Africa. She was later buried near her home she grew up in.

At long last, the heart of Karen’s personality unravels in many biographical studies. It is apparent that her withdrawal from her relationships is recurrent, especially among Denys, Bror, and family. The most peculiar is her relationship to Denys; he is barely mentioned in Out of Africa or Letters from Africa. He finally comes to life in the works of Judith Thurman’s biography, The Life of a Storyteller–Isak Dinesen, and the acclaimed movie, Out of Africa. This was odd, that a man she considered a significant companion was barely mentioned in her works. The most shameful is when told of Denys death in a plane crash, Karen responded with a cavalier shrug.

After seventeen years of making a go at turning her land into a viable coffee plantation, she was informed that Bror, who claimed to be knowledgeable of the production and aggregation of coffee, actually did not have any expertise. The land would have been more suitable and prosperous for breeding farm animals. The expensive investment of Karen Coffee had failed after years of rebuilding and nourishing the soil. There was the one successful year when the weather co-operated and trees had matured enough to produce large amounts of valuable coffee beans. But with no luck on her side, the farmhouse caught fire one night and the harvest quickly disappeared before her eyes. After much reluctance and many discussions with investors, she was forced to close the farm and sell the land. The farm was sold along with the precious belongings that once created a dreamy setting. Afterwards, the cottage was bare and echoes rang from the walls, which left her empty. This was a terrible blow, to lose everything she worked for during seventeen years, to construct a life style she thrived in and Deny’s death on top of it all was too much, she attempted suicide soon after.

In 1931, she returned to her childhood home Rungstedlund, Denmark, where she remained until her death. She began writing tales and stories, which led to a series of published works under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. Among her collected stories, novellas and novels are: Shadows on the Grass, Winter’s Tales, Seven Gothic Tales, Last Tales, Anecdotes of Destiny, Babett’s Feast, Out of Africa and Letters from Africa. In the latter, she conveys herself as an exuberant adult. Though life was difficult, all was fine in her letters to the family. They were aware of her troubles, but not their seriousness. Though she spoke of death and suicide offhandedly, there did not seem to be any great concern, except from her brother Thomas, to whom she remained close throughout the majority of her life. (She and Thomas discussed their religious beliefs, marital theories and the evolving social changes between men and women during the turn of the century. Eventually she wrote, On Modern Marriage and Other Observations, which explores the complexities of relationships.)

She became popular throughout America and Europe for her poetic writing style and unique and adventurous subject matter. She traveled extensively on both sides of the Atlantic for signings, readings and radio interviews. This running around began to take its toll on her health and eventually she returned to Rungstedlund to convalesce. There were proud moments in her career; for instance, she was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize, losing once to Ernest Hemingway who claimed that Blixen was one of the most prominent female writers of their time.

As Karen entered her elder years, she deteriorated after having three quarters of her stomach surgically removed. She was unable to eat much, which lead to her malnutrition and shockingly low bodyweight of seventy pounds. With the help and loyalty of her assistant, Clara Svendsen, she was able to complete some final works while Clara ran Rungstedlund and cared for the very ill Blixen. She passed on in a painful and lonesome way. Throughout her life Karen never knew how to stop; she literally worked herself to death in her later years, forever incapable of escaping the daily churn and grind of life.

It is unfortunate that her doctor’s lack of knowledge of mental illness kept her from addressing the real issues at hand; her physical ailments must have been so prominent that her emotional state was overlooked. She could have benefited from therapeutic analysis, but unfortunately managed to skirt around a fully integrated life. At one point she spoke indifferently of Freud’s theories and claimed that, “it is not necessary to dig up the roots, to know that they are there” (quote from Judith Thurman’s biography, The Life of a Storyteller – Isak Dinesen). It is not surprising that she suffered so extensively from severe depression and major physical ills considering the problems she faced personally and professionally. Other individuals may have been more resilient to the many unhappy moments Blixen faced, but the inherent disease of depression was a vulnerability she faced throughout her life. Africa was a means for healing, but unfortunately, that too was taken from her: the hills, the natives, the wildlife, the vegetation and foliage. She more or less died inside when everything was brought to a halt.

Karen Blixen leaves behind alluring and ravishing words taking us to the hills of Kenya. She let us into her home through memoirs and storytelling, romantic sketches of her life, the ups and downs, the courageous and weak – they all emerge there on her pages.

The Inner Conflicts
of Karen Blixen

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