(Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen at her desk at home in Rungstedlund, 1955; from the archives of her Danish publisher, Gyldendal; found here)
Recently I read a biography of Isak Dinesen by Judith Thurman (and very good it was too). Thurman naturally enough discusses Dinesen’s work and the circumstances which gave rise to it, and of course discussed the only novel she published, The Angelic Avengers. This was written during the war while Denmark was under the ‘protection’ of the Nazis; Dinesen just made it up as she went along for ‘a little fun’, in contrast to her manner of composing her tales, which involved much more polishing, and published it in Denmark in 1944 under the pseudonym Pierre Andrézel. (I don’t know if there’s any significance to Andrézel, it makes me think of donkeys! Because of the French âne and Dutch ezel.) The press quickly discovered the author’s true identity, although Dinesen steadfastly refused to admit she had written it, and it was judged by the standard of her tales and savaged. Perhaps because this experience was so upsetting, perhaps because she herself felt that the book was substandard, Dinesen only publicly acknowledged The Angelic Avengers as a work of hers in an interview with the Paris Review in 1956 (the English translation, which she made herself, was published in 1946 and 1947 when she was desperate for money; another possible reason for her to distance herself from it).
Intrigued by this, I ordered a copy at once! I must say that I think the savaging was completely unjustified, although yes yes, her tales are greater works of art. Perhaps it is to Dinesen what Orlando is to Virginia Woolf. It’s fun, a playful gothic tale of damsels in distress that’s perfectly suited to these chill dark days. It is set in Victorian England and is indeed quite silly, but there is more to it than pure melodramatic escapism and it is all written in Dinesen’s delightful, elegant prose.
[Zosine] once more turned towards the others. ‘No one, no one on earth,’ she passionately exclaimed, ‘can realize what I have gone through, what I have experienced during these days and nights! It is a terrible thing to be deceiving all the people round you! But at the same time it has in it a kind of fascination. It is an affair to exert all one’s faculties. It is a fatal game; it is wicked, I believe! But still it is a game, one feels as if one might go on for ever! But now I am more tired than I had thought it possible to be! It is when danger is over that one sits down to die. I am happy, but my strength has gone, and I am changed! I believe I have grown old!’
Orphaned Lucan Bellenden, daughter of a scientist, is forced to flee her position as a governess by the unwelcome proposition of her employer. She seeks refuge with her schoolfriend, the wealthy Zosine. However, Zosine’s fortunes are about to change drastically, and the two girls try to find work via a London agency, through which they are selected by the philanthropic, kind Reverend Pennhallow and his wife to be their companions in place of their lost daughter and receive a proper education. But all may not be as it seems – dah dah daaaaah! (For once I’ll try not to spoil the plot.)
The oppression of women is a core theme in The Angelic Avengers.The two girls must support each other and save themselves from the dreadful fate which awaits them. The masculine world is portrayed as threatening and exploitative. A male employer may propose that his children’s governess become his mistress, and her only recourse is flight (Dinesen admired Jane Eyre and there are many references to it in The Angelic Avengers: here the Mr Rochester figure is abusive). Without a male protector, young women are vulnerable; poorly educated but not working class, their avenues of employment are few and mainly labelled ‘governess’. Men devise, run and are the consumers in the (female) white slave trade. Of course the girls end up happily married at the end (I don’t think that’s a spoiler!) to nice young aristocrats whose inherited fortunes seemingly are not founded on the pain of other human beings, but in a nice twist on the traditional fairy tale of the hero who wins a princess at the conclusion of his adventures, these young men are very much rewards for the heroines’ bravery and spiritual strength rather than active helpers or interesting characters.
For when the girls face a terrible evil, the young men are no help at all, nor is the rich papa. The only support Lucan and Zosine receive comes from another woman, an apparently mad black former nanny, even more dispossessed than they, yet courageous and loving. The central moral question the book poses through their plight is: how does one respond to evil, particularly when one is powerless? Zosine and Lucan each find slightly different answers to that question. Revenge, as it turns out, causes moral sickness in the administrator. The book argues that the destruction of evil requires forgiveness and compassion. This cannot have been an easy message to write or to read in ‘protected’ and post-war Denmark.
This is a melodrama, and thus there are a lot of extremes and far-fetched elements, some of which involve playing with literary conventions and expectations of the gothic. In another echo of Jane Eyre, the fortune of Zosine’s beloved papa has been built up in the West Indies – on slave labour. Through Olympia, the nanny, Dinesen shows this distressing basis to European wealth: yes, Dinesen’s language isn’t what we would use today, and Olympia herself doesn’t question an order in which she is expected to serve, but her story of the horrible white man feeding on slave flesh is a vivid metaphor for the exploitation of the black West Indians by the whites. Whites preying on blacks, men preying on women: the nineteenth century is an ugly time.
Despite all this, The Angelic Avengers never takes itself too seriously. Something Zosine says to Lucan has been picked out as an epigraph for the novel, and it’s very fitting:
You serious people must not be too hard on human beings for what they choose to amuse themselves with, when they are shut up in a prison, and are not even allowed to say that they areJane Eyre prisoners: if I do not soon get a little bit of fun, I shall die!
Oh, and I’ve just discovered that it was made into a film in the US in 1948!