Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Danish Spinster and the English Rake? Isak Dinesen as the Inimitable Lord Byron-A Mythobiography

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Danish Spinster and the English Rake? Isak Dinesen as the Inimitable Lord Byron-A Mythobiography

Article excerpt

Documents, both private and historical, have made it possible to fulfil the first duty of a biographer, which is to plod, without looking to right or left, in the indelible footprints of truth; unenticed by flowers; regardless of shade; on and on methodically till we fall plump into the grave and write finis on the tombstone above our heads.

--Virginia Woolf, Orlando (65)

AGNESE "GOT INTO HER HEAD the notion that she looked like Milord Byron, of whom so much is talked ... [for] she used to dress and ride as a man, and ... write poetry" (Seven Gothic Tales 174). As the dueling, cross-dressing heroine of Isak Dinesen's "The Roads Round Pisa," Agnese della Gherardesci is a character whose trespass into the masculine role of the Byronic poet represents an authorial fantasy dear to Isak Dinesen. As the trouser-clad Baroness, who managed her African farm from the back of a very tall horse and later as a pseudonymous "male" poet in her own right, Dinesen, like Agnese, entertained the notion that she too resembled Lord Byron. A self-professed storyteller resistant to the idea of becoming a bit of printed matter, Dinesen was both attracted and repulsed by the nineteenth-century construct of the author as cultural figure that reached its zenith in the cult of character that Byron inspired at a time when reading Byron, or reading about Byron, became its own literary industry.

What literary theorists call Byron's "self-fashioning"--his talent for conflating author and character, life and art--is reproduced in interesting ways by Karen Blixen's highly theatrical approach to her own public persona, which she understood as a series of masks, beginning with her aristocratic, male pen name. "Not by the face shall the man be known, but by the mask," declares Kasparson, one of several masquerading characters in Dinesen's "The Deluge at Norderney" (Seven Gothic Tales 75). Such may also be the case for the post-Byronic author. By always leading with a mask, Dinesen was able to unmask, through her fiction, a kind of self-knowledge that complicates normative definitions of identity writ large or what the literary biographer takes to be his or her subject. My purpose, here, is not to sensationalize or expose either Byron's or Dinesen's efforts at self-mythologizing in the mean-spirited posture of a "tell-all" gossip or in the name of the biographer's sometimes over-assuming sympathy, but instead to honor the self-conscious and deliberate irony with which both George Gordon and Karen Blixen intentionally set out to make a problem out of literary biography through their respective strategies of dealing with fame and the discursive self.

In his dedication to Thomas Moore, Esquire, printed as the introduction to two of the four sets collected works of Byron in Dinesen's library at Rungstedlund, Byron resigns himself to serving the pleasure of a readership that likes to discover the author as the true villain of a text. "Be it so" he writes, "if I have deviated into the gloomy vanity of 'drawing from self the pictures [i.e. personages, or characters] arc probably like, since they are unfavorable, those who know me are undeceived, and those who do not, I have little interest in undeceiving.... I must admit Childe Harold to be a very repulsive personage; and as to his identity, those who like it must give him whatever 'alias' they please" (4:49).

No doubt attracted to the transgressive possibilities of living as an alias, at a young age, Karen Blixen impersonated Milord Byron as part of a "private serial" co-authored with her best friend, Ellen Wanscher, who eagerly took the part of Lady Annabella, Byron's spurned wife (Thurman 44). Karen Blixen's early identification with Byron seemed to offer her a means of resistance against the bourgeois morality that dominated her female-headed household after the suicide of her father, who was himself a kind of self-destructive, Byronic hero. Indeed, of the seven types and prototypes Peter Thorslev ascribes to the Byronic hero, Wilhelm Dinesen embodied at least three: Rousseau's child of nature, when he lived among the American Sioux, Pawnee and Chippewa; romanticism's Satanic hero, when he ranted against the pietism of his day in the ambulatory conversations he had with his nine year old daughter; and finally, the "hero of sensibility," or "the gloomy egoist," when he penned his own pastoral, self-exploration, Boganis, or Letters from the Hunt, which would influence both his daughter's expatriate wanderings and her own ambitions towards authorship (Thorslev 35; Thurman 16, 27). …

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