10 April (1931): Karen Blixen to Thomas Dinesen

Karen Blixen (better known by her pen name, Isak Dinesen) left her native Denmark in order to marry a Swedish baron and run a coffee farm in Kenya. Her memoir, Out of Africa, begins with a description of the farm: “In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.” By all other accounts Blixen was miserable. She didn’t love her husband (who had given her a debilitating case of syphilis) and was running into steep debt with the farm operations. When she met Denys Finch Hatton in 1918 he appeared to be her savior: he was a handsome and heavily decorated pilot with a penchant for the opera. After Blixen’s divorce, Hatton moved in. Blixen wrote the following letter to her younger brother Thomas, immediately after their split, considering whether she should return to Europe, or “quite calmly […] retire from life.”


Ngong. 10th April. 1931.


This letter is written in haste to catch the post, but I hope the meaning is fairly clear.

Dear Tommy,

You must be feeling that it is strange and wrong of me not to have written before, but the reason is that I have been quite unable to look ahead in any direction. I have had so much to do making what arrangements I could for my squatters and my boys and hope to work things out reasonably well for them; but I have not been able to see any way forward whatsoever for myself, and in that situation one does not know what to write.

But you must not think that I am frightfully depressed and see everything in a tragic light. That is not at all the case; on the contrary, I think that these difficult times have helped me to understand better than before how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way and that so many things that one goes around worrying over are of no importance whatsoever. The wider one can manage to get one’s overall view of life to become, —and that is about the most vital thing to aim for in life, —the more one comes to see the magnificence and multitudinous facets of existence. But this also involves a real and true freedom from prejudice, so that one does not at the same time try to go on maintaining that this or that is of immense importance, for it is not. For instance, it seems to me that it would be in no way be terrible or sad if I, after in many ways having been more happy here than it is by far the majority of people’s lot to be, —and there is not one single person I would change with,—were not quite calmly to retire from life together with everything that I have loved here. What I imagine a great many people would think of that: for instance, that it was terrible for Mother and so on, is something I cannot take into account. It may perhaps be just as hard for Mother to lose me as for me to lose Ngong; but when one comes to realize the whole nature of life, which is: that nothing lasts, and that in that very fact lies some of its glory, the sadness of this is really not so terrible. To me it would seem the most natural thing to disappear with my world here, for it seems to me to be, to quite the same extent as my eyes, or as some talent or other I might have, vital parts of myself, and I do not know how much of me will survive losing it. Generally: the continuance of life is in my opinion often misunderstood, for how much of oneself does in fact go on living? How much is there left, under present circumstances, of that person that I, or you, were fifteen years ago? —

But when all the same I am going to write what follows to you today it is because both Denys and Mohr, who have been such true friends ot me, think that I ought to, and so it is partly do to them. They think that on account of such a long wearing period of trouble and one-sided work on the same shauries I now cannot take a correct view of things and that what I ought to do is to have another try and attempt to make a plan. And they think that I should put this to you, since I am so far from being independent as to be able to carry through any kind of plan whatsoever, and find out whether you might be in agreement with them and willing to assist me. You must regard what I am now going to write from this point of view. It is, as I say, very unnatural for me, and I would much rather not say that in any case at all I think I am able to carry it through or feel myself bound to even try.

As far as I can see from the letters I have received, everyone who has any interest in this affair at all is reckoning on my going home and staying at home. From my point of view this is quite out of the question. Quite apart from the fact that the atmosphere at home has never suited me and that I got married and put all my efforts into emigrating in order to get away, and that it would suit me infinitely much less now, —insofar as the divergences in outlook that made it difficult for me to live at home have grown far more pronounced during these seventeen years, —it would be completely and utterly unnatural for me, rather as it would be for you if you had to go back to Rungsted Boarding School as a pupil, and I doubt whether either I or you would be able to find any level in such a situation. I do not say this as a criticism of anybody, not even of Rungsted School; but what suits them does not suit me. At home I lose that capacity for taking an overall view that it has cost me so much to attain. I am quite aware that during my visits home, particularly the last two, I have fostered in Mother, perhaps in everyone, an inaccurate impression, both as regards my own nature and the relationship between us. This is almost unavoidable when one is at home for a few months and cannot tell when one will be together with people again, and in any case it was done from the best of motives; but it is not the real state of affairs, and if I were to be permanently at home I would be unable to maintain it.—

I am putting this so strongly in order not to express it too weakly and so give you a wrong impression. Summa summarum: I am no more acquiescent than I was before; on the contrary; I cannot come home with remorse and contrition no matter what has happened to me and what I have been doing; I still feel that death is preferable to a bourgeois existence, and in death I will confess my faith in freedom.

This does not mean that I wouldn’t be terribly happy to stay at home for a few months; but if I am to make plans I suppose I must look further ahead. I know quite well that it would only be fair for me to say that I would stay at home and try to be something for Mother during the years that are left to her; but you see, those are the very years in which, if I am ever to get started on anything, I must do something about it.

In all sincerity, it is really very difficult to see what if anything I can do in this world. As I have probably written, I have wondered whether I could learn to cook in Paris for a year or two, and then perhaps get a post in a restaurant or a hotel. But I really don’t know; there are probably not many posts in these hard times. So, during these difficult months, I have begun to do what we brothers and sisters do when we don’t know what else to resort to, —I have started to write a book. I have been writing in English because I thought it would be more profitable, but as I was afraid that the language would prove a great difficulty, I sent a section of it home to a friend of Mohr’s, a publisher called Morely, and asked for his opinion. He was encouraging, —(the leisurely style and language are exceedingly attractive), —so I am inclined to think that it should be possible for me to write in English, and thereby I would have a chance at various openings, for instance in journalism. But if this should be so I would have to have time in which to finish writing my book, and I think, from what I understand of conditions in English publishing, I would have to publish the first book I wrote, —all supposing there should be more! —at my own expense. But in general: in order to be able to earn anything at all I will really have to have one or two years in which to train myself; for everyone knows that I can’t do anything.

This brings us to the question of money. I understand from Mohr that you have written to him saying that you think you could let me have enough to live on to keep me satisfied. But this does not remove the difficulty of making a  plan, because I don’t know whether you mean, like the others, to live on at home at Rungsted, or to be in some place where I could learn and which would of course involve expense. You know that I have never done anything on my own initiative in Europe; I don’t know, for instance, what it would cost to live in Italy. And if I were to try to write, then I would need to be able to go to England and talk to people there. It is no use for me to try to put forward ideas to be acted upon without taking everything into account, and it would come to cost a good deal. Would you, for example, be prepared to take a job, —that is if you can get one; I know nothing at all about conditions at home, —for two or three year sin order to help me to educate myself or get started on something or other? You know me so well that I don’t need to tell you that I am not cheap. There are so many things that I can do without perfectly well; I can live on bread and water quite easily, but that doesn’t alter the fact. I think we must get this quite clear because it would be terribly upsetting if there should be misunderstandings later on. I can’t live without fun in life; fun is what I am in need of even now. I must have £250 to get away from here (that is, to get back to Europe)—and I do not know how much more it will cost after that; but I do know that there are many people who can manage with much less money than I can.

They have the idea here that I am very ill. It is true that I am not at all well, and how can anyone expect me to be when sorrows and worries completely prevent one from eating and sleeping for six months. —But I think this is of completely minor importance. I might have to stay somewhere or other for a month or two, but I don’t really think so. I am sure it will all clear up and will not cause lasting trouble.

Now you must not, and I am sure you will not, take this as a sort of threat; help me and sustain me, or I will die. As I said I am writing chiefly because I promised Mohr and Denys that I would. But you must give it consideration from the following point of view: as far as I myself am concerned, the most reasonable and easy thing to do would be to die. But if you feel, and this something that I can’t really see for myself, but that other people seem to think, that there is some meaning in making yet another attempt to live, then give it some thought and decide, —whether you think you can help me to live the kind of life that would suit me, a happy life. There must always be one thing that is more important than anything else to a person and I think that for me this is freedom, or space. I cannot and will not live in a situation where I feel myself incarcerated. Naturally no one can tell how it will go; but please consider whether you think that you can and want to advise and help me to live happily.

I know that I can die happily, and if you are in doubt, let me do that. Let me take Ngong, and everything that belongs to it, in my arms and sink with it, and it will be without complaint, but with immense gratitude to life. There is so infinitely much that I love out here and also at home; I love you all and thank you for so enormously much.

Will you please reply to this letter by telegram? If it should turn out like that your offer to meet me in Genoa would be accepted with joy.

Many many greetings. Everyone and everything here send greetings as well.

Your Tanne.

Isaak Dinesen: Out of Africa 1914-1931. Frans Lasson. Translated by Anne Born.  The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637 (1981) Pages: 417-21