Karen Blixen started her writing career in earnest as a man. Not like some Orlando, who experienced an acute sex change overnight, but because she understood that in the 1930s her writing might have more weight if everyone thought she was a man. Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen was published in Denmark and Great Britain in 1934 and won her some acclaim. When she wrote Min Afrikanske Farm or Out of Africa about her 18 years in Kenya, she wrote and published as herself in 1937. And the rest is history, including film history.
In the series about women writers at the Royal Danish Library, I attended a lecture by Benedikte Rostbøll who is studying the recently opened archives of correspondence about the business of Blixen’s African farm. Blixen’s uncle, Aage Westenholz was the chairman of the board of the Karen Coffee Company that owned Blixen’s African farm.
In the context of the lecture series A Room of One’s Own, after Viginia Woolf’s 1929 essay, I have no doubt that Blixen travelled to Africa to find her own room, independence and autonomy, essential to her ability to create. When in Africa she claimed to be alive, to be where she is meant to be. Much later in 1953, after the venture had failed she wrote in Babette’s Feast: Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me leave to do my utmost!
Like many writers of the time, Blixen had access to resources to let her have that leave. While in Africa, Blixen relied heavily on her uncle to maIntain, especially because her husband and cousin, Baron Bror Blixen, was a spendthrift with little business sense. Westenholz insisted that she keep the Baron away from the management of the farm. Yet, at no point was the farm a viable business proposition, as Westenholz discovered when he visited in 1921. Nevertheless, on Blixen’s pleading, he kept funding her room for years after. When she finally returned to Denmark in 1931, Blixen felt like a ghost of herself – she had lost her own room and returned to her childhood home with its strong, dominant women.
Perhaps in this experience lies the seed for her later speech on the nature of women and men – Baaltalen med 14 aars forsinkelse (Concluding speech with 14 years delay, 1953). The 1939 International Women’s Congress was held in Copenhagen and Blixen was invited to deliver a speech to close the Congress. She declined – she was busy with the English actors at a season of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that week, but she also felt the request misguided: she had little to offer the women’s movement. The request stayed on her mind and fourteen years later she finally delivered the speech, somewhat controversially suggesting the women’s liberation movement should lay down its weapons. In her view women and men should not compete, but inspire and complement each other. The nature of femininity is to be and the nature of masculinity is to do. Women are concerned with expanding their being, men are concerned with what they have achieved: a man’s centre of gravity, his centre of being, is in what he does and achieves in life, a woman’s in what she is.
In this light, Blixen saw the essence of artists as more like women than men – she acknowledged Danish author Paul la Cour’s view: To be a poet is not to fashion a poem, but to find a new way to live. This insight should probably have made her wonder, like Woolf wondered, why more men than women are recognised as accomplished artists. But perhaps her lack of wonder is in line with her view that women do not identify with their tangible achievement, but with who they are. This seems like a cop-out, though, from a woman who wrote under male pen names to be taken seriously.
When she managed her coffee farm in Africa, to some degree she had to take on the masculine role of doing. She was never successful when measured with the male yard stick, but she was indeed very successful from the artistic, feminine point of view.
As I sit on the balcony in the mild spring sunshine, pondering what Blixen meant some 60 years ago, I think about how I was brought up to value action and achievement over being. This value has given me a long and successful career. One of the reasons for my pied-á-terre in Copenhagen is my realisation that this type of achievement now carries little meaning for me. I am trying to find that room, that leave, where I too can create and be the poet that finds a different way to live. And I am still learning.