Out of Africa

She was known by two names, Karen Blixen and Isak Dinesen. She led two lives, Kenya coffee farmer and Danish literary celebrity. Many decades after her death in 1962 her home in Rungstedlund. near Copenhagen, and her home near Nairobi, Kenya, are both enduring tourist destinations, each called ‘the Karen Blixen Museum’.

If you’ve seen the film of Isak Dinesen’s memoirs, Out of Africa, a visit to the African Karen Museum will feel like a visit to a film set. At the end of the gravel drive sits the same low stone house, surrounded by a veranda, where Meryl Streep as the new Baroness Blixen, was welcomed by her African staff.  Inside the house you’ll see the folding screen, decorated with the Chinese figures that prompted the tales Karen Blixen spun, Scheherazade-like, for her lover Denys Finch Hatton, as played by Robert Redford in the film. Her polished riding boots are near her lace-covered bed and in the guest room, Denys Finch Hatton’s jodhpurs lie folded over a trunk.

But then the guide tells you that those boots belonged not to Karen Blixen but to Meryl Streep, and the jodhpurs belonged to Robert Redford. The painted screen is not the original but a gift from the producer of the film. The photograph of Denys Finch Hatton on Karen Blixen’s study wall is pointed out with a smile as that of the ‘original Robert Redford’.

This uninhibited mingling of fact and film should ring false but curiously, it doesn’t. It even seems oddly appropriate. No one could leaven reality with romance more freely than did Karen Blixen herself. Friend have recalled the rows of crystal wine glasses set out at dinner though there was seldom wine, the richly costumed servant who attended her even though she was bankrupt, her blind faith that her coffee farm would prove profitable even though planted in the wrong soil at the wrong altitude.

Most of her 5,000 acre farm has been developed as the affluent Nairobi suburb called Karen, but her house, a museum since 1985, is still set in wide lawns. An overgrown path through the surrounding forest leads to the rusted ruins of her coffee factory where pieces of abandoned machinery stand in a clearing. The blue knuckles of the Ngong Hills she loved so well, and where Finch Hatton lies buried, still dominate the horizon as they dominated her life.. ‘I have a feeling,’ she once wrote home to her mother in Rungstedlund,’ that wherever I am in the future I will be wondering whether there is rain at Ngong.’

This proved to be literally true. When the farm was finally lost in 1931, when her marriage to Baron Blor Blixen was long over and her lover, Denys Finch Hatton had just died in the crash of his airplane, she returned in despair to Rungstedlund. Adopting the pen name Isak Dinesen (Dinesen was her family name, Isak means ‘one who laughs’) the failed coffee farmer began to write. Books such as Seven Gothic Tales, Babette’s Feast, Shadows on the Grass and Out of Africa, eventually made her an acclaimed international literary figure. But every night of her long life she would stand for a moment on the sill of the south-facing door to look towards Africa and the Ngong HIlls.

‘It is a law of life’, she observed in her short story, The Poet, ‘that one thing amongst all that we meet must impress itself deeper upon our souls than any other.’ How deeply Kenya impressed itself on her soul can be seen in all the rooms of the Danish Karen Blixen Museum. The windows of her summer study overlook the blue waters of the Sound, but Masai spears and shields hang behind her desk.  In the Green Room, the wickerwork chair which was Denys Finch Hatton’s favourite on the farm is pulled up to the table. The gramophone he gave her is nearby. In the gilded drawing room from which the celebrated Isak Dinesen made her popular radio addresses, the painted screen (this one the French original) stands beside the marble fireplace. An ornate Zanzibar chest, the gift of her devoted Somali servant, Farah, holds an arrangement of flowers and leaves from the  Rungstedlund gardens and woodland as it did during her lifetime.

In Africa, Karen Blixen often thought of the beech woods of Rungstedlund. As a child she had wandered through them with her father, listening to stories of his life with the Indians of North America.  When she died in 1962, in the house in which she was born, she was buried in these woods under a giant beech tree.

All she owned of Africa, a handful of earth she had brought back with her to Denmark in a little wooden box, was mixed with the soil of Rungstedlund in her grave. The unadorned tombstone of Isak Dinesen, the world-famous author, is inscribed simply, ‘Karen Blixen’.