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by Bamber Gascoigne

Janet Frame (1924-2004)


New Zealand novelist, poet, essayist, short-story writer. Janet Frame published 11 novels. Her concern with language and its relation to truth, and her suspicion of conventional "realities," led her to develop a unique kind of narrative, which aimed at finding the invisible beyond the real. The direction of Frame's fiction is, as she writes in her autobiography, "toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth."

Wayward as dust when the wind blows around corners
into blind eyes; petrifying as stone
that sinks the heart of thistledown.
Grave as gravity denied
supremacy in outer space,
tall metaphor, explain me,
describe my shape.
(from The Pocker Mirror, poems by Janet Frame, 1967, p. 18)

Janet Paterson Frame was born in Dunedin, New Zealand's oldest city. She was one of five children of an impoverished railway engineer, George Frame and Lottie (Godfrey) Frame. Her mother's family, the Godfrey's, had long established in Wairau, Bleheim, and Picton. Frame spent her early years in railway houses and huts in Southland. The family settled in 1930 in Oamaru (the "Waimaru" of her novels) on the eastern coast of South Island.

"As a child, I used to boast that the Frames 'came over with William of Orange','" Frame wrote in the first volume of her autobiography. "I have since learned that this may have been so, for Frame is a version of Fleming, Flamand, from the Flemish weavers who settled in the lowlands of Scotland in the fourteenth century." (From Silence to Voice: The Rise of Maori Literature by Paola Della Valle, 2010, p. 64)

"Grandma Frama," who lived with the family, became Frame's close companion and friend. She had diabetes and one of her legs had been amputated. When she sang 'Labouring hard for Ole Massa', Frame assumed that she was African and had been a slave in America. Her brother's life was affected by epilepsy and two of her sisters died young by drowning is separate accidents in 1937 and 1947. These traumatic events had consequences in her life and left deep traces in her writing. Frame began to write as soon as she was literate.

Frame attended Oamaru North School, Waitaki Girls' High School, and University of Otago Teachers Training College in Dunedin (1943-44). She left teaching in 1945 and earned a living by looking after four elderly women in a boarding house. In 1945 Frame abruptly walked  out of the classroom; she had a breakdown. Misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic, Frame became a voluntary patient at Seacliff Mental Hospital. From 1947 she spent seven years in various psychiatric hospitals.

During this period Frame was reportedly subjected to over 200 shock treatments. Because of her aversion to ECT (Electroconsulsive Therapy) she was treated largely with insulin shock therapy; it produced comas and convulsions. At that time no anaesthetics or muscle relaxants were used. Patients were restrained manually to prevent injury. Her experiences Frame dealt with in her novels, where schizophrenia is seen to open doors to personal growth and "madness" becomes a metaphor for escape from the constrictions of society.

The Lagoon (1951), with which Frame debuted as a writer, won the Hubert Church Memorial Award. This collection of stories saved Frame in 1952 from "prefontal leucotomy" operation, known in the United States as "lobotomy." Frame's doctor had told her that following it, she would be back home in no time. When a hospital worker read that she had won a literary prize, the operation, which would have severed the fibres connecting the front part of the brain to the rest of the cerebral cortex, was cancelled. Commenting on the near lobotomy she said: "Yes, it really is incredible. Not only incredible, but horrific. It's more like fiction than fact." ('Introduction' by Josephine A. McQuail, in Janet Frame in Focus: Women Analyze the Works of the New Zealand Writer, edited by Josephine A. McQuail, 2018, p. 10)

From 1954 to 1955 Frame lived on the property of the New Zealand writer, Frank Sargeson, in Takapuna. In the evenings she played chess with him, and talked about books. Penniless, she worked as a cleaner in an Auckland hotel. Her first novel, Owls Do Cry (1957), was completed in her friend's garden shed. It was a strongly autobiographical account of growing up in a small New Zealand town. In the center of the novel is the Withers family. The children find on the town dump a "treasure," which affects all their activities and perceptions.

Frame left her home country on a State Literary Fund grant in 1956. Afraid that she might be forced back to a mental hospital, she lived in Ibiza, Andorra, and England for the next seven years. Frame legally adopted the surname "Clutha," a nod to New Zealand native culture, but she did not use it in her writing. Clutha was both the name of a river in Central Otago and the Gaelic name for the River Clyde, the valley in Scotland where Frame's paternal grandparents hailed from. ('Janet Frame's New Gothic: Language in A State of Siege' by Josephine A. McQuail, in Janet Frame in Focus: Women Analyze the Works of the New Zealand Writer, edited by Josephine A. McQuail, 2018, p. 182)

In Ibiza Frame had a brief love affair with George Parlette, a thirty-year old American accountant, who had left a wife and two children. It was Frame's first sexual experience with a partner; she concealed from Parlette that she was a virgin. (Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame by Michael King, 2002, pp. 164-165) Her pregnancy ended in a painful miscarriage in Andorra. There she met an Italian guide and smuggler named El Botti who proposed marriage to her.  

While in London she found a doctor  who confirmed her own instictive diagnosis, that writing was her way to survive. During these years Frame published three novels and two collections of stories. Faces in the Water(1961) described a journey through madness, a central theme in Frame's work – the fear the "sane" have of the "mad." Estina, the narrator, writes about the season of peril: "I was put in hospital because a great gap opened in the ice-floe between myself and the other people whom I watched, with their world, drifting away through a violet-coloured sea where hammerhead sharks in tropical ease swam side by side with the seals and the polar bears." (Ibid., W.H. Allen, 1961, p. 12) The narrator observes life in hospitals, the patients and the staff, and eventually faces the ultimate threat, the change of personality - "you'll never regret having had a lobotomy."

After returning to New Zealand, Frame spent a year in Auckland and a year at Otago University as Burns Fellow, and then made her home in Dunedin in a cottage. She also made extended visits to the United States and England. Deeply shy, Frame grew increasingly reclusive, but for her close friends she also could reveal her unique sense of humor. At a party in 1966 she met the poet James K. Baxter, whom se found a "kindred spirit". In the late 1970s Frame lived in Whanganui, where about only some neighbours, a checkout girl at a local supermarket, and librarians knew that she was a writer.

Intensive Care  (1970), Frame's tenth novel, has been characterized as "a  plea for the restoration of humanity – before it is too late." (An Inside-out Guide to the Novels of Janet Frame by Jan Cronin, 2011, p. 118) This antiutopian novel described in the second  part a society ruled by supertechnocrats after a nuclear World War III. Daughter Buffalo (1972), Frame's only book set in the United States, grew from periods she spent at the Yaddo writers' colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, and at the MacDowell colony, New Hampshire. A selection of her early correspondence with the Californian painter Bill Brown, whom she met at MacDowell, was published under the title Jay to Bee: Janet Frame's Letters to William Theophilus Brown (2016). Their correspondece continued until Frame's death. Occasionally she played with the possibility of living with Brown and his partner and fellow artist Paul Wonner. 

In The Carpathians (1988) Mattina Beacon, a wealthy New Yorker, moves to a town called Puamahara in New Zealand. The town is known to be the source and setting of the legend of the Memory Flower. She fall under the spell of Kowhai Street, and becomes obsessed the arrival of the Gravity Star, which would destroy the concept of nearness and distance, and overturn all thought. The inhabitants of Kowhai Street suffer under the influence of Gravity Star demolition of their minds and their words. "She stared at the heap of letters. They looked faded, used, yet the morning sun, striking them, made them sparkle and shine, reflecting, perhaps, and old thought lying between letters. Mattina wondered why she felt afraid to touch them, to brush them into a pan and drop them in the trash. After all, they were only a pile of old letters of old alphabets with a sprinkling of full stops and commas, seedlike with tiny sprouts not of life but of the final decay of the old language that had lasted well, magnificently, but were now like the old gods and goddessess who no longer could change or accept new growth and must perish to feed the birth of the new." (Ibid., G. Braziller, 1988, p. 131) Everybody in Kowhai steet disappears - they have died or been killed and removed - except Mattina. She returns to New York, dies there and her husband makes a pilgrimage to Puamahara.

The radical questioning of language and the flexible use of time were reworked in Frame's later fiction. Opinions differ whether Frame is a postmodernist writer, or whether she remains closer to modernism. Diane Carey has argued, that Frame's writing is iridescent with imagery drawn from Shakespeare's play The Tempest and mirrors the tale of Prospero with the notions of Storm, Sea, Island, Exile, Magic, Otherness and Return. ('Janet Frame & The Tempest' by Diane Carey, Journal of New Zealand Literature, 11 / 1993)

The author herself considered the best thing she ever wrote to be a fable entitled 'Bird, Hawk, Bogie.' In it the bird (inspiration and imagination) is eaten by a strong hawk (materialism), which in turn is eaten by the bogie (repressed imagination and individualism). This triangle provides the recurrent symbolism for majority of her work. Noteworthy, Frame did not regard herself as a novelist. "I look on my writing as exploration in no favorite form," she said. ('Frame (Clutha), Janet (Paterson),' in World Authors 1950-1975, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 488)

A New Zeland rehabilitation physician argued in 2007 an article published in New Zealand Medical Journal, that Frame may have suffered from autism. Hilary mantel said in her intoduction to the 2009 edition of Faces in the Water that "[i]t is time to subdue the urge to pathologize, and see Frame as the highly conscious artist that she was." Janet Frame died of leukaemia on 29 January, 2004 in Dunedin Hospital. She was 79. Her early novel, Towards Another Summer, which she wrote while living in London in 1963, was published posthumously in 2007. Frame won several awards for her fiction, including an Honourary Doctor of Literature from the University of Otago, a C.B.E. in 1983, and the Turnovsky Prize for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts.

Frame's three-volume autobiography, To the Is-Land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984), The Envoy from Mirror City (1985) was adapted in 1990 into a film, called An Angel at My Table. Originally it was produced as a three part television series. Directed by Jane Campion, the film won seven prizes at the Venice International Film Festival, as well as the Special Jury Prize, and The Four Season's International Critics' Award at the Toronto Festival of Festivals. "It's hard to know just how to respond to a lot of what's put on screen here, and Campion doesn't help us much -- she seems to have fallen under Frame's affectless spell." (Hal Hinson, Washington Post, June 21, 1991)

In the filmization shy and introverted Janet, an ugly duckling, grows up in a materially poor but intellectually intense family, that provides understanding and encouragement for her poetic tendencies. While at a teachers' college, a nervous breakdown is misdiagnosed as schizophrenia. She spends 8 years in a hospital, receiving the full service of over 200 shocks of electrotherapy. After publication of her first book, she is saved from lobotomy. With the help of a grant Janet travels to Europe in the 1950s. In London she is assured by a psychiatrist that she never had schizophrenia. She returns to New Zealand when her father dies.

For further reading: Life Writing and the End of Empire: Homecoming in Autobiographical Narratives by Emma Parker (2024); Metafiction and the Postwar Novel: Foes, Ghosts, and Faces in the Water by Andrew Dean (2021); Janet Frame in Focus: Women Analyze the Works of the New Zealand Writer, edited by Josephine A. McQuail; foreword by Patricia Moran (2018); Literary Whanganui: a Reader's Guide by Joan Rosier-Jones (2018); 'Janet Frame,' in Encounters: My Life in Publishing by George Braziller (2015); Dangerous Writing: the Autobiographies of Willa Muir, Margaret Laurence, and Janet Frame by Carmen Luz Fuentes-Vásquez (2013); Janet Frame by Claire Bazin (2011); Frameworks: Contemporary Criticism on Janet Frame, edited by Jan Cronin & Simone Drichel (2009); Materialisations of a Woman Writer: Investigating Janet Frame's Biographical Legend by Maria Wikse (2006); Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame by Michael King (2000); The Inward Sun, ed. by Elizabeth Alley (1994); The Janet Frame Reader, ed. by Carole Ferrier (1994); Janet Frame: Subvesive Fictions by Gina Mercer (1994); I Have What I Gave: The Fiction of Janet Frame by Judith Dell Panny (1993); Bird, Hawk, Bogie: Essays on Janet Frame, ed. by Jeanne Delbaere-Garant (1978, rev. ed. as A Ring of Fire, 1992); 'Frame (Clutha), Janet (Paterson),' in World Authors 1950-1975, edited by John Wakeman (1975)

Selected works:

  • The Lagoon and Other Stories, 1951
  • Owls Do Cry, 1957
  • Faces in the Water, 1961
  • The Edge of the Alphabet, 1962
  • Scented Gardens for the Blind, 1963
  • The Reservoir & Snowman Snowman, 1963
  • The Adaptable Man, 1965
  • A State of Siege, 1966
  • The Pocket Mirror, 1967
  • The Rainbirds, 1968 (reissued as Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room, 1967)
  • Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun, 1969 (with Robin Jacques)
  • Intensive Care, 1970
  • Daughter Buffalo, 1972
  • Living in the Maniototo, 1981
  • To the Is-Land, 1982
  • An Angel at My Table, 1984
  • You Are Now Entering the Human Heart, 1984
  • The Envoy From Mirror City, 1985
  • The Carpathians, 1988
  • An Autobiography, 1989 (Volume One: To the Is-Land; Volume Two: An Angel at My Table; Volume Three: The Envoy from Mirror City)
  • The Goose Bath, 2006 (UK title: Storms Will Tell: Selected Poems, 2008)
  • Towards Another Summer, 2007
  • Storms Will Tell: Selected Poems, 2008
  • Prizes: Selected Short Stories, 2009
  • The Daylight and the Dust: Selected Short Stories, 2010 (introduced by Michèle Roberts)
  • Janet Frame in Her Own Words, 2011 (selected and edited by Denis Harold and Pamela Gordon)
  • Between My Father and the King: New and Uncollected Stories, 2012
  • In the Memorial Room, 2013
  • Jay to Bee: Janet Frame's Letters to William Theophilus Brown, 2016 (edited by Denis Harold)

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