Karen Blixen’s “WW1 in Africa” and other stories

It came to my attention today that Karen Blixen’s ‘Out of Africa’ House is up for sale – no, I’m not looking to buy it, although it does sound idyllic, but it did spur me to recall that Karen was in Kenya during World War 1 and did her part.

She had met the German commander Paul von Lettow Vorbeck in 1914 en route to East Africa. Karen was going out to marry Bror Blixen and Lettow to take command of the forces in East Africa. This is relatively well known in some circles, as William Stevenson conjured up a love-affair between Blixen and Vorbeck in his WW1 novel of the campaign – The Ghosts of Africa. However, the top two ‘love stories’ of the campaign remain William Boyd’s An ice-cream war and CS Forrester’s The African Queen.

Bror and Karen got married and shortly before war broke out. Karen doesn’t say much about the war in her book Out of Africa although she does provide some useful insights to understanding relations between the German and British colonies at the time. However, Errol Trzebinski tells Karen’s story beautifully in her biography Silence will Speak so no need for me to repeat it here.

With the outbreak of war, Bror Blixen enlisted with Lord Delamere whilst Karen remained at home – but not for long. Accounts tell of her taking off on her wagon laden with food and heading out to where Bror and his fellow scouts were based. A refreshing and welcome site for those who hadn’t been home for some time. As the war progressed, Karen took on the supervision of a number of farms as their owners were at the front. It is recorded that women were looking after up to seven farms at a time whilst the men-folk were away. The reason for the large number of farms being looked after was that there weren’t too many women in Kenya (British East Africa) and many of the farms were looked after by single men.

There isn’t much written about the home front or the role of English women during the campaigns in Africa, so what we know of Karen’s life is a rare glimpse into the African home front. German women for Empire by Laura Wildenthal is the best record yet.

Where the home front and women do have a voice in WW1 literature is in the novel as there are very few, perhaps only The King’s Shilling by Hamilton Wende and Percy Westerman’s Boy’s Own stories, which do not feature a woman. To date 35 fiction books have been identified on the campaign, including two (Follow after and Into the limelight)by Gertrude Page, the only female novelist identified to date. Karen Blixen, although being a novelist and having lived through the campaign, does not appear to have used the war in any of her fictional works, and neither has Elspeth Huxley (Delamere’s biographer) who was a young girl of about 7 living in Kenya when war broke out – I still have a few more of both their books to read to confirm this statement.

To see the complete list of books on the campaign, visit http://gweaa.com/?page_id=2134 and to hear more about the books, please get in touch.

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5 thoughts on “Karen Blixen’s “WW1 in Africa” and other stories

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