Karen Blixen's Africa
Today, April 17, is Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen’s birthday, in 1885. If the names don’t resonate, think Out of Africa, the best movie ever filmed (for my money) and the title of a memoir of Africa, written by Blixen under the pseudonym of Isak Dinesen. Blixen nee Dinesen was born and lived much of her life on her family’s estate north of Copenhagen, but it is her seventeen years spent in Africa that define her for much of the public.
I fell in love with the Africa portrayed in books in my mid-twenties and was therefore completely prepared – especially as a Dane - to also love the movie Out of Africa, which was released in 1985. Accordingly, I developed a strong interest in the events and people included in the film. Fortunately, just about all of the major real-life characters portrayed in Blixen’s story either penned auto-biographies or were the subject of professionally written biographies, and I’ve read them all. Of the bunch, there’s no question that Blixen was the most fascinating.
After a romance with a distant cousin failed to flower, Blixen married his twin brother, Bror Blixen, in 1915. and the couple went out to Africa to establish a Kenya coffee farm with their families’ moral and financial support. They purchased land framed by the Ngong hills to set up an estate that eventually covered several thousand acres. As expansive as the estate was, at an elevation of 7,500 feet, it was a bit high for coffee, and Bror turned out to be much more interested in hunting than farming, as well as something of a rounder. Accordingly, Karen contracted syphilis – apparently from Bror - after a year in Africa and had to return to Denmark for treatment, which at the time consisted of taking doses of both mercury and salvarsan, an arsenic derivative.
The treatments were successful, and she returned to Kenya pronounced cured after about a year in Denmark. Though she was apparently clear of syphilis, the disease (or something) ravaged her health for her entire adult life. She died on the family estate in 1962, reportedly weighing sixty-some pounds at the time.
Bror sought and was granted a divorce from Karen after about a decade in Kenya and Karen subsequently took up with the scion of an English aristocratic family, Denys Finch Hatton. Finch Hatton was the handsome son of an Earl, a graduate of Eton College and by every account a dashing and charismatic figure. Where her marriage to Bror was something of an arranged personal and business partnership, Karen loved Finch Hatton deeply, spending some five years in a live-in relationship with him at the coffee plantation. Throughout those years, however, the fiercely independent Finch Hatton steadfastly refused to marry Karen, causing her a boatload of anguish and grief to go along with the joys and passions of an adventurous and creative romance.
In May, 1931, that romance was coming to an end, with Finch Hatton having moved out of Karen’s house and subsequently losing his life in the crash of his Gypsy Moth airplane at Voi Airport.
The final failure of the coffee plantation – now a museum owned and operated by the nation of Denmark – followed, in 1932, Blixen returned to the family estate for the rest of her life. She never returned to Africa.
In the book Out of Africa, Karen wrote these words:
If I know a song of Africa, does Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?
A failed marriage, a failed deeply romantic relationship, a failed coffee plantation. One could understand a Karen Blixen who returned to Denmark cynically bitter about her time in Africa, but the fact is that she considered that period the most exciting and rewarding of her life, and viewed the ravages of syphilis the price to be paid for her success in becoming an internationally accorded author.
Africa will do that to you. I finally got to there, with Cindy, in 2013, and though we visited South Africa as opposed to the too-often-violent and dangerous Kenya, given the time and money, I’d go back in a nanosecond…even to Kenya to visit the Blixen Estate.
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