Book Reviews : Isak Dinesen on Free Love, Marriage


On Modern Marriage and Other Observations by Isak Dinesen (St. Martin’s: $12.95)

To get any kind of grip on what Isak Dinesen is trying to say (or prove) in “On Modern Marriage,” you have to know at least a little about her life. That knowledge probably should include more than just having watched Meryl Streep swanning about as Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen in darkest Africa in a smashing post-World War I wardrobe, as Robert Redford swoops about after her in a stylish little biplane.

The publisher here has thoughtfully provided an extensive foreword and a learned afterword; the first to summarize Dinesen’s life-circumstances, the last to explain her rather alarming interest in Social Darwinism and eugenics, which seems now to be uncomfortably close to some of our most controversial theories about social engineering, and--at some level--the precursor of Hitler’s “Final Solution.” No question about it, Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen was an unregenerate elitist. A person who could say that she didn’t mind the syphilis her husband had given her (because he’d made her a baroness by marrying her), had a fairly exotic belief system.

That gets ahead of the story. Karen was born in Denmark in 1885. Her mother’s family were upright members of the bourgeois; her father was related to Danish aristocracy and spent time in America as a trapper. He was, in a word, adventurous : “A major concern with her very prudish maternal family was morals which in turn led to many restrictions and prohibitions on the young, fun-loving and intellectually alive girl. . . . Consequently aristocracy came to represent to her the qualities that she put such store by all her life.” And, to continue this summary from Else Cederborg’s compassionate and understanding foreword, “in 1914, when Karen married the twin brother of the man she had been in love with for years, the action may in many respects be likened to an escape from the “present, loving, infinitely kindly family milieu” that Karen Blixen felt was engulfing her in dull coziness. As the bride of the Swedish Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, she could now join the aristocracy that was forever connected with her father’s memory, and her notions of freedom and adventure.”


Life in Kenya

Only 19! And soon to be out in Africa, managing, with her husband, a coffee plantation in Kenya. But then her husband--incompetent, feckless, a shameless philanderer--contracted syphilis, and infected her. Then she met the man who would soon become her lover, “the dashing English Army pilot Denys Finch Hatton, who was the second son of the Earl of Winchelsea.”

Yet another aristocrat! Two dashing men with herself as the center of attention! Africa surely more adventurous than poky Denmark. And yet, her husband wanted a divorce and her lover didn’t want to get married. The plantation was losing money, her mother’s family was saying “I told you so” all over the place. Karen spent vast quantities of time at home alone not terribly desired by those two aristocrats.

Might she have been wrong? Might she have done better by staying at home, marrying a dull husband, staying faithful? (Cinematic and literary history have vindicated her; it’s probable that Karen’s career as “Isak Dinesen” in the last third of her life wouldn’t have happened if she’d been a stay-at-home, and certainly Meryl Streep would not have impersonated on the wide screen a compliant Danish housewife.)

But at the time, Karen was a lonely wife living a “modern marriage,” i.e., her husband was unfaithful, she had a wandering lover, there was a dangerous venereal disease to contend with, and there were no children, because (despite rumors of miscarriages) she was practicing birth control. From this position, and from the position of almost monumental loneliness, the Baroness Blixen sets out in this essay to vindicate her position.

“On Modern Marriage” is a very badly written essay, full of phrases like “people say,” and “people know,” and “modern people always . . .” and the reader wants to shout out what people ? Who, dear lady, are you talking about? Martial your thoughts! Get specific! Prove your case for free love so that the “modern people” in present-day America can stop feeling guilty about their divorce rate, and our distraught children of divorce, and those of us who used to go out to singles bars can do so again, and indulge in a one-night stand or two without the bruising fear of death!

Security for Adults

But the baroness can’t make a case against domesticity. “What good does it do?” she asks over and over again, rhetorically, but steers absolutely clear of what good a cozy marriage does do, because the answer must have stung like nettles: That monogamy offers safe haven for children--and security for adults against loneliness; against brutish, existential Angst.


Anguish is the tone of this ill-written, often incoherent essay. But the key to understanding here is adventure : “she had no urge to ‘raise’ her husband morally or consciously,” Cederborg writes. “Her ambition was at quite another level, but it is impossible to determine which one.” But who of us, in our own family histories, do not have a willful great aunt or two who had “affairs,” who notched the names of lovers in notebooks or letters left out for her husband to see? Who of us does not know a woman or two even now in her 50s or 60s who has consciously lived that life?

It tends to be difficult for women to have “adventures.” For every Jeana Yeager, there must be 10,000 grumpy housewives, wistful schoolteachers, middle-level managers, wondering how to “live life to the fullest.” Simone de Beauvoire opined in “The Second Sex” that infidelity is a woman’s first adventure, her most effective declaration of independence. Infidelity looks like adventure, it feels like adventure. But fate has written some terrible side effects into the fine print of the infidelity-adventure contract. The desperately lonely Baroness Blixen tried to figure out some of that fine print; our “modern women” are still working, with little success on the same conundrum.