“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 worrying about are of no importance whatsoever.”
― Karen Blixen
For Karen Blixen being such an iconic Dane, I confess to discovering her late and not through her book but through the movie, Out of Africa, at age 11. I also confess to not fully understanding her story until many years later when I began in earnest to understand great creatives in Danish history.
One of the reasons why I’ve come to hold a special place in my heart for Karen is because of her twisty, winding life path that started with a charmed childhood spent in a loving family that spent time outdoors and travelling. But that changed just before her 10th birthday when her father committed suicide. Her teen years were a mix of travel as she stayed with various family until she moved to Africa and married Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, who was the twin brother of a man she really love but did not love her back. It was more formal suicide than one of of loved and their partnership was in setting up a coffee farm in Kenya. Her husband was unfaithful to her and her coffee farm was in an area where growth and harvesting was impossible. During her time in Africa, she met Denys Finch Hatton, who was her real great love for about 5 years until his untimely death in a plane crash. It was then that she found herself penniless, sick and alone and decided to return to her home in Denmark feeling broken and in a slight depression.
As a child, she hadn’t been encouraged to be creative and I think she felt a disconnect between who she was and who she wanted to be. As someone who was also a really creative and imaginative child who felt they had to hide that part of themselves as they grew up, I could related. Although she’d begun writing her first book, Seven Gothic Tales in Kenya, she didn’t really begin writing in earnest until age 38 in her home in Denmark. She wrote in English and the pen name Isak Dinesen hoping she’d be able to sell the novel for more but initially had a hard time finding a publisher. However once she did, the book found literary success and gave her the ability at age 42 to write the autobiographical novel that would give her the most fame, Out of Africa.
In Out of Africa, she really encapsulates the feelings of both charm/wonder with despair. There’s always good and bad things happening but she never fully gives into one. Instead, the bad becomes building blocks from she then lives and enjoys life. I think that is such a powerful message because it’s always so easy to think someone is born charmed or lucky instead of realising everyone has struggles – what’s different is how people deal with them.
So for years I have wanted to visit the home of one of my hero’s as it’s now a museum but just never had made it a priority until this trip. I was so glad I took the time to visit because I was inspired all over by her creativity, life and home. I highly encourage a visit when you’re in Denmark as it’s easy to get there by car or train from Copenhagen. I recommend the train because it’s a very easy and lovely walk to her home with a path through the woods in which she loved to walk and is now buried.
The museum says this about her home: “The rooms are almost exactly as Karen Blixen decorated and arranged them, giving a vivid impression of the writer’s day-to-day surroundings. Some of the furniture came from the farm in Africa, including Denys Finch Hatton’s favourite chair and the chest that Karen Blixen’s steward, Farah, gave her. A number of the old stoves in the rooms came from Danish manor houses once owned by Karen Blixen’s relatives.”
It feels like a very typical Danish home in a lot of ways; cosy, relaxed, with formal touches and lots of family or meaningful decor throughout. Rooms tell a story, individual pieces tell a story and whilst walking around you can feel those stories.
One of my favourite touches of the home were all the flowers throughout. Karen loved them, especially spring blooms in winter, and so the ladies that work in the museum keep up this tradition of beautiful flowers in every room. So even with the snow outside, there is a warmth and happiness of spring inside.
For anyone who feels like their childhood wasn’t great or they missed out on opportunities or feels their life slipping by, I highly encourage a deeper dive into Karen Blixen’s life and literature. Her years from 40 onward were pretty daring and dashing, as though she didn’t really begin to know herself and cultivate her own life on her terms until then. Before she was suppressing her creativity, voice and going along with what was fashionable to felt she had to do. But once she discovered her voice, her world completely changed. And I love a true life story that gives that kind of hope.