The Dreaming Child


I first read Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa many years ago shortly before travelling to Kenya to live for a year. As I was reading it specifically as a book about the country (along with a number of others) this did not lead me to explore her fiction any further. The Dreaming Child (and the other two stories included here, ‘The Sailor-boy’s Tale’ and ‘Peter and Rosa’) come from the collection she wrote after Out of Africa, Winter’s Tales, which was published in 1942 at the height of the Second World War under the pen-name Isak Dinesen. All three stories have a curiously old-fashioned feel to them – all are set in the 19th century and read as if written a hundred years earlier.

The Dreaming Child begins with the history of an unlucky family which culminates in the life of one child:

“In the course of her short, tragic life, she was washed from the country to the town of Copenhagen, and here, before she was twenty, she died in dire misery, leaving a small son behind her.”

The boy, Jens, is placed in the care of Madame Mahler, “within the slums of old Copenhagen, in a dark back yard like a well, a labyrinth of filth, decay and foul smell.” There he is befriended by Mamzel Ane, an elderly woman who has known life (as a servant) within the great houses of the wealthy but has now fallen on hard times. She convinces Jens that this is where he belongs:

“The idea of this majestic, radiant world, in the mind of little Jens, merged with that of his own inexplicable isolation in life into a great dream or fantasy.”

The story then changes focus to Emilie Vandamm, a young woman who seems destined to marry her older cousin, Jakob, until she falls in love with a naval officer, Charlie Dreyer. Despite a warning from a friend that he “makes love to all the pretty girls in Copenhagen”, she continues with the relationship until he suggests they sleep together and she (literally) closes the door on him, returning to plan A. (This detour is relevant to the story’s conclusion) It will come as no surprise that Jakob and Emilie fail to have children and, via a chance encounter, adopt Jens. Jens, however, sees things differently:

“His mama and papa… were coming on the morrow, in great state, to fetch him home.”

He becomes “the dreamer whose dreams come true” and everyone in the household immediately takes to him apart for Emilie who remains inexplicably wary, feeling “afraid to be alone with him.”

The Dreaming Child remains enigmatic (i.e. vague) through to its conclusion, and, to be honest, it was my least favourite of the three tales included here. ‘The Sailor-boy’s Tale’ is a story which might have been written at almost any time, perhaps without the emotional resonance of the other two but neatly done. ‘Peter and Rosa’, however, succeeds on all levels, with both emotional depth and thrilling tension all the way to its desperate conclusion. Strangest of all, the stories do not read as ‘knowing’ or pastiche, even as, for example, Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights do, but as if Dinesen had written them a hundred years before.


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2 Responses to “The Dreaming Child”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve read one Dinesen, there’s a review somewhere at mine, but not more. Not sure about this one. It sounds a bit slight and the old fashioned feel you refer to doesn’t hugely appeal. Telling perhaps too that having read another myself I struggle to recall what it was and haven’t read more since.

    • 1streading Says:

      Dinesen seems to have chosen to write as if from a previous century – no hint of post-modernism! The stories were well-crafted but did not make me want to immediately read more.

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