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Critical Essay by Sara Stambaugh
SOURCE: "Witch as Quintessential Woman: A Context for Isak Dinesen's Fiction," in Mosaic, Vol. XVI, No. 3, Summer, 1983, pp. 87-100.
Stambaugh is an educator, novelist, and critic whose works include The Witch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen (1988). In the following essay, she examines Dinesen's "complex" relationship to feminism, drawing mainly on her letters published in Letters from Africa, 1914–1931.
In Isak Dinesen's "The Dreamers" Lincoln Forsner begins his tale of Pellegrina Leoni by saying, "You must take in whatever you can, and leave the rest outside. It is not a bad thing in a tale that you understand only half of it." The major approaches to Dinesen's work so far, I think, have taken in "only half of it"; by focusing upon esthetic issues, critics have overlooked the fact that her subject is almost always the role of women. Eric Johannesson perceived it when he observed: "The Gothic tales of Dinesen deal with individuals who are trapped in one way or another, by sex, by class, by history…. [They reveal] a strong feeling on behalf of the author for those who are trapped by life, particularly for women who are forced by social conventions to live on the edge of life" [The World of Isak Dinesen, 1961]. Writing in 1961, however, Johannesson was not equipped to realize just how important the conditioning of her sex is to the female writer or the extent to which women of Dinesen's generation had learned to disguise their real concerns. Nor was it until 1981 and the publication of Karen Blixen's Letters from Africa that Hans Lasson called for a study of "Karen Blixen's opinions on the liberation of women and the relationship between the sexes …" [from the introduction to Letters].
Lasson's call for a feminist approach might have jolted Karen Blixen, as Dinesen is known in Denmark, because she was caught between two worlds and had a complicated opinion about women's role. She examined it again and again—if only as the bottom layer in fiction of the sort Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar describe in The Madwoman in the Attic: "a palimpsestic or encoded artwork, concealing female secrets within male-devised genres and conventions" [The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, 1979]. Similarly, what Anthea Zeman says about serious women writers of earlier generations applies to Dinesen as well: "these writers held fast to their subject, [which was] not society, but women's relationship to it" [Presumptuous Girls: Women and Their World in the Serious Woman's Novel, 1974]. Although Dinesen's fiction derives its strength from the fact that she does not ignore the larger context, her ultimate concern is with "what a woman is faced with in her time because she is a woman" (Zeman).
It may therefore be well to begin this discussion by examining the way in which some of Isak Dinesen's subjects have typically been treated by male critics. "The Blank Page," for example, is perhaps her central esthetic statement about the art of storytelling. It ends the first section of Last Tales, the opening story of which—"The Cardinal's First Tale"—is also concerned with the nature of art. Robert Langbaum examines the opening story in some detail, describing it "as Isak Dinesen's explicit defense of her own apparently anachronistic art" [The Gayety of Vision: A Study of Isak Dinesen's Art, 1964]. His treatment of "The Blank Page," however, is limited to two sentences, in which he mentions that it deals with the same theme as the opening story and that it "offers a diagram of the perfect story as the exceptional and enigmatic case, as the story written upon the blank page." Johannesson ignores the story, and Thomas Whissen—though he discusses it in some detail because his subject is Dinesen's esthetics—concludes that it makes a comment about "the fall of man and his subsequent suffering" [Isak Dinesen's Aesthetics, 1973]. Diametrically opposed to such interpretations, therefore, is the recent reading of the tale by Susan Gubar. Focusing upon the Freudian implications, Gubar regards the story as central to her thesis that women resent being treated as blank page/vagina by the male pen/penis. Her discussion emphasizes female resentment of male "rending" and of "the blood of menstruation which presumably defiles like a curse …" ["'The Blank Page,' and the Issues of Female Creativity," Critical Inquiry, No. 8 (Winter 1981)]. In spite of its value in placing Dinesen within the tradition of women who write about women, however, Gubar's reading would probably have made Dinesen uneasy.
The story of "The Blank Page" is told by an ancient woman who has "told many tales, one more than a thousand," and who is thus associated with the archetypal female storyteller Scheherazade, as well as with Dinesen herself. She relates her storytelling to the time after "I first let young men tell me, myself, tales of a red rose, two smooth lily buds, and four silky, supple, deadly entwining snakes." The art of storytelling has been passed down to her, she says, from her grandmother, who learned it in turn from her grandmother, who "as a little girl was the pet of an old Jewish rabbi, and the learning she received from him has been kept and passed on in our family." She describes the art of the blank page as representing the highest art of storytelling, the point at which "silence will speak"; it is "the old women who tell stories, [who] know the story of the blank page." In other words, the female can become the highest kind of artist after she has undergone her apprenticeship in sex and living and mastered esoteric knowledge passed down the female line.
To explain the meaning of the "blank page," the old woman describes a convent where "labor-hardened virginal hands" grow and weave the finest linen in Portugal whose seed came from the lands which Caleb's daughter begged of her father along with "the upper springs and the nether springs." The sheets woven by the nuns are given to the royal house and displayed after a royal wedding to prove that the bride was a virgin, after which the stained sections are returned to the convent and framed. The old storyteller continues, "Within the faded markings of the canvases people of some imagination and sensibility may read all the signs of the zodiac: the Scales, the Scorpion, the Lion, the Twins. Or they may there find pictures from their own world of ideas: a rose, a heart, a sword—or even a heart pierced through with a sword." Again, "Each separate canvas with its coroneted name-plate has a story to tell, and each has been set up in loyalty to the story," although the one framed, unstained square tells the most powerful story of all and is "The Blank Page" of the title.
Dinesen, then, has presented the subject of her art as explicitly female and connected with women's private sexuality: stories written in the blood of women's "nether springs." It is also noteworthy that the convent is "High up in the blue mountains" and reflects a totally female society permeated with stories from which men are excluded. Besides the nuns who live there, the convent is visited only by royal ladies and occasional old maids, who come here "on a pilgrimage which was by nature both sacred and secretly gay."
Pride in female sexuality is also shown in other stories in Last Tales. In the opening story, for example, the Cardinal remarks to his listener, "But your sex possesses sources and resources of its own; it changes its blood at celestial order, and to a fair woman her beauty will be the one unfailing and indisputable reality." "Tales of Two Old Gentlemen" goes further. As they consider "the complexity of the universe in general," one of the old gentlemen presents his grandfather's theory that the "originator and upholder" "of the Cosmos" is female and describes God as a shepherdess, to whom
tears are convenient and precious, like rain—as in the old song il pleut, il pleut, bergére—like pearls, or like falling stars running over the firmament—all phenomena in themselves divine, and symbolic of the highest and the deepest spheres of human knowledge. And as to the shedding of blood, this to our shepherdess—as to any lady—is a high privilege and is inseparably united with the sublimest moments of existence, with promotion and beatification. What little girl will not joyously shed her blood in order to become a virgin, what bride not hers in order to become a wife, what young wife not hers to become a mother?
Even though the speakers in these two stories are male, both see female sexuality as completely admirable, and in the second story as closely associated with divinity.
A central problem in approaching the subject of Dinesen's feminism is her own complex attitude toward women's role and what it should be—which is perhaps one of the reasons she returns to the subject time and again as if to examine it from every possible angle. The complexity of her stance is reflected in the only essay she published about feminism, "Oration at a Bonfire, Fourteen Years Late." According to Langbaum, this essay was originally a speech delivered at a Women's Rights Congress in 1953; it was fourteen years late because, as Dinesen explains, she had been asked to speak about feminism to an international women's congress in 1939 and had declined:
"I cannot accept this assignment, for I am not a feminist." "Are you against feminism?" asked Mrs. Hein. "No," I said, "I can't say that I'm that, either." "How do you stand upon feminism?" asked Mrs. Hein again. "Well, I never thought of it," I answered. "Well, think of it now," said Mrs. Hein.
A letter written to her Aunt Bess during Dinesen's African years provides an interesting gloss on this description: "Like most people I am too slow witted to have my arguments ready at hand in a discussion and am therefore often obliged … to resort to the excuse of saying: I haven't thought about it. But afterward, of course, one tries to give the subject serious thought and to clarify it, and then one may wish to resume the discussion …" (Letters). Dinesen's disclaimer, therefore, should not be taken to mean that she had not previously thought about feminism.
In fact, the thrust of her speech repeats a point made in Out of Africa in which she discusses "the fascination of things wholly different from themselves," a point she later elaborates in Shadows on the Grass when she describes her relationship with her servant Farah: "In order to form and make up a Unity, in particular a creative Unity, the individual components must needs be of different nature, they should even be in a sense contrasts. Two homogeneous units will never be capable of forming a whole, or their whole at its best will remain barren." As she comments later in the same passage, "A community of but one sex would be a blind world."
The point of her belated Bonfire Speech is that men and women are different and should not try to be alike. She speaks of "my old belief in the significance of interaction, and … my conviction regarding the opulent and unlimited possibilities which arise from the fellowship and interplay of two different individuals," an interplay she describes as "the reciprocity between man and woman." What makes them different is that "A man's center of gravity, the substance of his being, consists in what he has executed and performed in life; the woman's, in what she is." As she sees it, therefore, "woman's function is to expand her own being," and she gives as examples Maria Theresa, Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, the Maid of Orleans, and the Virgin Mary, all of whom, she says, are known for what they were rather than for what they did. Paradoxically, this means that "the average woman is more of an artist than the average man," for even though "few women have been great artists," if "they do not create a work of art, they can themselves be said to become works of art—that is, as actresses, singers, or dancers."
Apparently aware of the offense she may be giving to her feminist audience, Dinesen pauses to give a kind of apology in which she praises "the older women of the women's movement now in their graves' and acknowledges that her own freedom "to study what I wished and where I wished … to travel around the world alone … put my ideas freely into print … [and] stand here at the lectern" stems from "the grand old women [who] struck the first blow for us." But Dinesen's point is that the battle has been won, and women no longer have to act like men: the woman of today "has certainly such a firm footing in the old strongholds that she can confidently open her visor and show the world that she is a woman and no disguised rogue."
Her assumption, of course, would be opposed by many feminists. In The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir specifically denounces several of Dinesen's stances. In her introduction, de Beauvoir uses Dinesen's favorite analogy of master and servant, which de Beauvoir presents as "master and slave [who], also, are united by a reciprocal need, in this case economic, which does not liberate the slave." She concludes that "Even if the need is at bottom equally urgent for both, it always works in favor of the oppressor against the oppressed."
De Beauvoir also denounces Dinesen's contention that women exist for what they are, because, according to de Beauvoir, dependence upon an indefinable essence makes women too lazy to be, for example, serious literary artists. De Beauvoir says about traditional women: "In order to seduce, they know only the method of showing themselves; then their charm either works or does not work, they have no real hand in its success or failure. They suppose that in analogous fashion it is sufficient for expression, communication, to show what one is…."
But if Isak Dinesen rejected some feminist stances, a further look at her Bonfire Speech shows that she cared about women and insisted upon their right to be different from men because of her strong assumption that the sexes were equal. She describes the early feminists as "sly" because, in effect, they disguised themselves as men to break down sexual barriers and enter the professions. But now that they are free to be doctors, she wonders why women should not bring to that profession their traditional skills as midwives and clairvoyants. The implication is that women have special talents which transcend the roles devised by men.
A key phrase in the Bonfire Speech is Dinesen's reference to "the reciprocity between man and woman," because reciprocity can exist only between equals. Dinesen is wickedly witty, for example, in dismissing "the attitude of various past eras" that "one half of the race should devote itself to preservation and procreation while the other half took on the task of development and progress." To illustrate her point, she describes Kaiser Wilhelm's view that woman's place was "Kirche, Kinder, Küche—the church, the children and the kitchen." Commenting on the Kaiser's view, she says:
Personally I would say that, were this seriously meant, it would be an offer worth considering. But it never was seriously meant. Had the church really been a woman's field of endeavor we might naturally have had woman priests and bishops and also woman popes—but about such one knows only of Pope Joan, who is unfortunately said not to have been a favorable representative of her sex and has been sadly reduced by later, skeptical times to a legendary figure. The officials of the church have always been exclusively male and the woman's role has been limited to that of the churchgoer—which nobody could very well refuse her. Had Kinder been put into the hands of women, had schools and the educational system been their domain, the world would probably look rather different than what Kaiser Wilhelm imagined or wished it to be. For him the concept was presumably most nearly associated with cradles and diapers, a realm for which there has never been any zealous male competition. As far as the third K, the kitchen, is concerned—the area where women can be assumed to have been more or less sovereign—they seem to have displayed an admirable unselfishness. It is the male taste which dominates both the family table and the restaurant—when women eat together and can themselves decide the menu, it has quite a different, lighter, and more varied character. Here I may interpose the remark that Negro and Somali women are clever about poisoning their men by the dishes which they put before them, and that as a consequence they enjoy quite peculiar respect.
As this passage shows, however uncongenial her views might be to some feminists, Isak Dinesen was no simple reactionary.
In fact, the central point of her essay is that the world needs to be feminized. As she says, "our own time can be said to need a revision of its ambition from doing to being", in other words, from masculine to feminine values as she has defined them. She goes on to compare women to trees and men to machines in a feminist revision of a favorite figure of the nineteenth century:
At times it can seem that our day, proud of its mighty achievements, would claim the superiority of the motor over the oak tree, the machine over growth. But it is also conceivable that in such an evaluation we have been misled by an interpretation of the theory of the survival of the fittest. It is clear that the motor can destroy the oak tree—while the oak tree cannot be thought capable of destroying the motor—but what follows? That which itself has no independent being—or is without any loyalty to such a being—is unable to create. Now I have not meant that women are trees and men are motors, but I wish to insinuate into the minds of the women of our time as well as those of the men, that they should meditate not only upon what they may accomplish but most profoundly upon what they are.
Her speech ends with a call for people "who are agriculturists," "who are sailors," "who are teachers," and "who are poets", in other words, for a world infused with the quality of "being" which she considers fundamentally feminine.
If Isak Dinesen rejected conventional feminism, it was not through lack of familiarity. In fact, she was raised in a family bristling with militant feminists. After her father's suicide when she was nine, she spent most of her life until her marriage at twenty-eight in a matriarchal society dominated by her maternal grandmother, her mother and her mother's sister, Mary Bess Westenholtz. All three had strong personalities. In addition, as Dinesen's brother Thomas comments, "All the Matrup family had always been involved in political problems and disputes of the day. They were all pronouncedly to the left, and amongst other things, were very much in favour of votes for women" [Thomas Dinesen, My Sister, Isak Dinesen, 1975]. Dinesen's Aunt Bess, for example, was known for her invasion of Parliament in 1909 when she seized the podium and denounced the male legislators as cowards—after which, Thomas comments, "a large deputation of women gathered at Folehave to thank her for her courage and resolution." Dinesen's mother was also a political activist. When Danish women were granted the vote in 1916 she was elected "to Hørsholm Parish Council, and when it turned out that she was the eldest of the elected members, for a few days she had the honour of being Denmark's first woman parish councillor." Isak Dinesen, then, grew up watching the fight for women's rights, because "the grand old women [who] struck the first blow for us" included her intimate relatives.
As her Bonfire Speech indicates, however, Dinesen apparently thought that in fighting for equality her female relatives had sacrificed something of their femininity; perhaps she had them in mind when she referred to early feminists as disguising themselves as men. Dinesen has been accused of disliking "her aunt, and the maternal wing of her family in general" [Judith Thurman, "Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen: A Very Personal Memoir," MS II, No. 3 (September 1973)]. but as one might expect of Isak Dinesen, her letters indicate a more complex relationship. Her letters to her mother, for example, are filled with endearments such as "my beloved little Mother," "My own beloved Mother," and "My own beloved beloved wonderful little mother" (Letters). Writing to her grandmother, she wonders "whether … I'm not rather like you" (Thomas Dinesen), and in another letter to her mother she comments that she is certainly fonder of her Aunt Bess than her sisters are (Letters). In all, the letters show a warm family feeling on the part of Isak Dinesen—but not one which is uncritical.
Although Dinesen loves the members of the family matriarchy, she makes clear that she rejects their values. As she remarks to her mother, "I think that to a certain extent all of your family lack the ability to 'amuse themselves,'—or, to express it symbolically: 'to enjoy the wine of life,' and are inclined to think that happiness is to be found in a diet of bread and milk." Elsewhere she says to her mother, "recently I have come to see that your way of thinking is completely foreign to me; I will never belong to it." Of her grandmother, aunt and the maternal uncle largely responsible for financing her stay in Africa she complains: "They are always trying to change me into something quite different; they do not like the parts of me that I believe to be good." In a letter to her brother in which she discusses her plans to leave Africa and expresses her dislike of moving into her mother's house, she writes, "the atmosphere at home has never suited me," and she indicates that she "married and put all my efforts into emigrating in order to get away …" (Letters). It would seem that her rejection of feminism is part of a reaction against the wider system of values she associates with it.
Apparently Dinesen judged feminism to be bourgeois and rejected it along with the other maternal values she opposed to the aristocratic ones associated with her father. As she mentions in a radio talk, she was her father's "favorite child, and I know he thought I resembled him" ["Rungstedlund: A Radio Address," in Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays]. If she considered herself alien to the maternal world, one reason was her conviction that she was her father's daughter, so much so that her first pen name was Osceola, the Indian name of her father's dog [see Parmenia Migel, Titania: The Biography of Isak Dinesen, 1967], and her house in Africa was first called Bogani House in tribute to her father's pen name of Boganis. The idealized values she associates with him permeate her work, just as aspects of his life appear, for example, in the failed love affair described in "Copenhagen Season." As a result of her identification with her father, the values she embraces are those likely to be associated with a masculine system, the belief in risks, for example, or in the grand gesture. A friend says that when Dinesen was a girl, "She looked down upon the female—bearing, consoling, surviving—for in her experience, the female was only the survivor…. In most cases, she defined the difference between women and men as the difference between goodness and greatness: the prudence that respects life versus the extravagance that defies death. It was the same distinction she made, on another level, between the bourgeois and the aristocrat …" (quoted by Thurman). Whether or not the friend is to be trusted, Isak Dinesen's identification with her father and rejection of her mother's values influenced her views of feminism.
To complicate things even more, the youthful Dinesen thought herself the victim of a sexist society, the instruments of which were her maternal relatives, whose concern that women should vote did not include a belief in equal education. In a fairly general way, Thomas deplores that in his sister's youth young women were not trained for anything but marriage, when "all that could be hoped for and helped with was to ensure that they found the right husband…." In a 1927 letter his sister is more explicit in speaking of her own "bitterness where the old laws and ideals are concerned" and in assigning blame: "For instance, where the case of the emancipation of women is concerned, I myself feel, despite my affection for much that was beautiful and graceful in the old ideals, despite my gratitude toward those old women who struck the first blow for our freedom and independence, that the accounts have not been quite settled with a world, a system (not, of course, with any individuals at all), that with a perfectly clear conscience allowed practically all my abilities to lie fallow and passed me on to charity or prostitution in some shape or other …" (Letters). Whether or not her assessment is just, it helps to explain, for example, her reference in "The Monkey" (in Seven Gothic Tales) to the fury sealed in the breasts of old women "by the Solomonic wax of their education". It also illuminates what happens to the heroine of "Alkmene," who is a good Greek scholar until her lessons are stopped when she is confirmed because masculine learning is unsuitable to a woman. Even if she grew up in a feminist household, Isak Dinesen had a fair share of grudges because of the repression she felt in it—one of the reasons, perhaps, that according to Thomas, "for years [she] looked with enthusiasm on the French Revolution and its characters: 'I wonder if I could ever be a person like Robespierre?' she said".
Isak Dinesen, then, was fully aware of the limitations she faced as a woman in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, although just how resentful she was has been made clear only with the publication of her letters. In one, for example, she describes "the shooting parties at Näsbyholm," the estate of her paternal uncle, from which women were excluded and "did not exist until the men came home from shooting and they could begin to be charming for them at dinner" (Letters). (Apparently commenting on this letter, Naomi Bliven remarks that Dinesen's "pleasure in shooting wild animals [in Africa] … arose at least in part from resentment of European shooting parties she recalls, from which women were excluded" ["A Woman and a Foreigner," The New Yorker, September 7, 1981]). Even more noteworthy is Dinesen's outspoken defense of women's independence, particularly in her epistolary debates with the more and more reactionary Aunt Bess and in her less defensive letters to her sister Ellen. Writing to the latter in 1928, she confided: "Incidentally, I think that there is a really fine time ahead for women and that the next hundred years will bring many glorious revelations to them. For there is hardly any other sphere in which prejudice and superstition of the most horrific kind have been retained so long as in that of women, and just as it must have been an inexpressible relief for humanity when it shook off the burden of religious prejudice and superstition, I think it will be truly glorious when women become real people and have the whole world open before them" (Letters). To her Aunt Bess she writes elaborate defenses of the current generation of women, who "desire and are striving to be human beings with a direct relationship with life in the same way as men have done and do this" (Letters). In a later passage—that must delight Gilbert and Gubar, who devote a chapter of The Madwoman in the Attic to "Milton's Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers"—Dinesen develops her argument by refuting Milton's "'He all for God and she for God in him'" (Letters). To her mother Dinesen writes of her delight in learning to drive a car and in cutting her hair: "For centuries long hair has been a sort of slavery; suddenly one feels freer than words can express…. And as nobody wears corsets out here you can really move as a man's equal" (Letters). She adds that she would wear shorts if she had better legs.
The letters I have quoted were written during Dinesen's African years and reflect her joy at independence, especially after her separation from her husband. But the marriage itself, as she indicates in a letter quoted above, was contracted as a bid for independence. Before her letters were published, her brother wrote: "To me it seems likely that Tanne [Dinesen's family name] had felt it absolutely vital to seek a totally new form of existence, perhaps different from the Victorian life imprinted on her home, which she had come to find intolerable". The joy she found in the freedom of her African life is beautifully attested to in Out of Africa, but her reaction at her freedom is perhaps most succinctly stated in an excerpt from an unpublished lecture of 1938: "Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for all conventions, here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams. It was like beginning to swim where one could stretch out in all directions, it was like beginning to fly where one seemed to have left the law of gravity behind. One might get a little dizzy, it was a little dangerous as well, it took courage, as it always does to recognize the truth. But it was glorious, intoxicating" [quoted by Donald Hannah, Isak Dinesen and Karen Blixen: The Mask and the Reality, 1971]. As Dinesen remarks to her brother in another letter, "I prize my freedom above everything else that I possess …" (Letters).
If Africa offered her freedom, however, it also allowed her to explore its limits. "Life here … has many features in common with life in Denmark two hundred years ago," she wrote; "the roughness of the conditions shows up the difference in the physical capacity of men and women …" (Letters). Although Dinesen ran a plantation in Africa (none too efficiently, it appears), she fell into the role of Victorian woman, raising flowers to please her anachronistic sixteenth-century gentlemen callers and apparently extending her being to entertain them, especially Denys Finch Hatton, whom, like Scherherazade, she amused by telling stories. Like her relationship with her father, the one with Finch Hatton may have contributed to the complexity of her sexual stance, because according to his biographer [Errol Trzebinski, in Silence Will Speak: A Study of the Life of Denys Finch Hatton and His Relationship with Karen Blixen, 1977], Denys "claimed to have inherited [his 'talent for writing verse'] from his blue-stocking ancestor, Anne Finch, Lady Winchilsea"—a writer currently regarded by feminist critics as a pioneer feminist. According to Naomi Bliven, the idealized Denys is "like a more polished and magnetic version of her husband," with both being "a thousand years behind the times" but paradoxically, "agents of modernization" in East Africa. Bliven concludes that Dinesen "failed—perhaps inevitably—in her attempt to assert the rights of twentieth-century women in an existence imagined by nineteenth-century men."
Dinesen's stance on feminism, then, is especially complex because on the one hand she wants absolute independence and thinks that the relationship between the sexes will have to be revised in the twentieth century. She writes her brother that nineteenth-century versions of marriage and the relations of the sexes represented "a very brief and myopic period of exception in the history of man" probably brought about by Romanticism which managed to "[confuse] realities and feelings in a hitherto unknown manner" and ended by "[muddling] up a code that was probably none too clear previously" (Letters). She even wrote a monograph, Modern Marriage and Other Considerations, sent to her brother in November 1924 but so far—unless perhaps in Danish—unpublished (Letters [the work was published in 1986 as On Modern Marriage, and Other Observations]).
On the other hand, Dinesen apparently enjoyed the idea that women embodied special qualities and deserved special tribute as women. In a 1928 letter to her sister Ellen she laments "that the idea, so to speak, has disappeared from womanliness, of what it is to be a woman." She continues:
I think that the women of the old days, and especially the best of them, felt themselves to be representatives of something great and sacred, by virtue of which they possessed importance outside themselves and could feel great pride and dignity, and toward which they had a weighty responsibility. Neither the arrogance of the young and beautiful girl or the majesty of the old lady was, after all, felt on their own behalf; they were without any element of personal vanity, but were borne as something to take pride in, a shield or a banner. Where a personal affront might well be pardoned, a violation of that womanliness whose representatives they were could never be forgiven….
In her fiction, of course, Dinesen loves to examine such past attitudes, but to some extent, at least, she seems to have shared this one. She was personally vain. Migel, for example, comments upon her feminine vanity and "desire to charm and conquer, which was even more essential to her than to most women", and Eugene Walter describes an encounter in Rome between Dinesen and an Italian princess, who "achieved only an exquisite springtime chilliness with each other." He concludes, "both ladies, at heart, really liked to be surrounded only by males" ["Isak Dinesen Conquers Rome," Harper's Magazine, February, 1965].
Apparently Dinesen finally decided to enjoy independence yet at the same time to cultivate a special feminine mystique. The stance is uncomfortably close to the reactions against feminism by early twentieth-century writers as described by Elaine Showalter, who remarks that "many women writers of this generation seem to have retreated from social involvement into a leisurely examination of the sensibility, into the cultivation of a beautiful womanly Unlikeness" [A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, 1977]. Dinesen certainly insists on "womanly Unlikeness." What separates her from such anti-feminists as Marie Corelli is that Dinesen rejects the idea that "'the clever woman sits at home'" and controls men by her passivity [Corelli quoted by Showalter]. To the contrary, Dinesen's female characters as often as not are powerful, independent and free of sexual restraints, like the Danish noblewomen she often describes or, particularly, like Pellegrina Leoni. If from one perspective Dinesen's stance can be considered a reaction against feminism, from another it might be considered an example of what Showalter posits as the third and truly liberated stage of women's writing, the "phase of self-discovery, a turning inward freed from some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity." More recently Judith Finlayson has suggested that "there may be means of achieving and using power that do not conform to the male model…." ["An Introduction to Women and Power." Homemaker's Magazine, No. 17, January-February, 1982.]
To Dinesen, the admirable men of the world are those who honor and acknowledge the superior wisdom of the one woman who never conformed and who never had to earn her independence, the witch. In the title work of her collected essays Dinesen speaks of three groups in which an "older generation [of men] viewed women," who "were for them either guardian angels or housewives or, in a third group … what I here, to use a nice word—for there are a good many that are not so nice—shall call the bayadères." After describing each type she adds that "the men of the nineteenth century viewed their women from these points of view, or in three groups, officially," but "in reality they had in their consciousness still another type of woman which for all of them was very much alive and present but was not mentioned or recognized by the light of day…. [L]ong before the words 'emancipation of women' came into use, [she] existed independently and had her own center of gravity. She was the witch" ["Daguerreotypes," in Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays]. Describing the witch, Dinesen allegedly quotes a friend from Africa:
"Even though the witch is a lonely figure," said my friend, "she has a good relationship with her sister witches. She is a black guardian angel, a bat on a dark night filled with Northern lights as a flickering reflection from the time that Lucifer was the morning star. She is a housewife to the hilt: fire and fireplace are precious to her and the cauldron is indispensable. She is a bayadère and a seductress even as a Sibyl or a mummy:black from Phoebus's pinch of love
and wrinkled deep by time …
And if the learned gentlemen feel their masculine dignity is affronted by the thought that she prefers the devil to a man, then the layman and outdoorsman find some compensation in another remark: the basis, indeed the prerequisite for the witch's entire activity is the circumstance that the devil is masculine.
The witch, then, embodies the characteristics Dinesen associated with ideal womanhood: friendship with other women, masculine independence, the rebelliousness associated with Lucifer, housewifely skills, seductiveness and a strong attraction to men. If her attitude toward feminism is complex, in the figure of the witch Dinesen found a means of expressing it.
It is not surprising that the witch is a central figure in her fiction. Not only is the witch quintessential woman, but she reflects as well the superior powers associated with women through the ancient moon goddesses and their descendants, the medieval practitioners of the Craft of the Wise. Like the moon goddesses, she has a double aspect and can appear as primordial mother, crone and loathly lady or else as Kore, captive princess and benevolent fairy. The witch Sunniva of "The Sailor-Boy's Tale" is both hag and, it can be argued, the nubile young Nora, who rewards the hero with a kiss. But like the Lapp witch Lahula of "The Bear and the Kiss," she is most often misunderstood and reviled by men who fear the power of the independent woman. Thus she not only expresses the power of womanhood in a particularly feminine form but also reflects the difficulties the emancipated woman faces in the twentieth century.
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