FROM THE oxford companion TO new zealand literature
Frame, Janet (1924-2004 ), is New Zealand’s most distinguished writer (CBE; Member, Order of New Zealand; Nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature; Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; Hon DLitt, University of Otago; President of Honour, PEN (New Zealand); Honorary Vice-President of the New Zealand Women Writers’ Society).
Frame’s short but suggestive autobiographical sketch, ‘Beginnings’ (Landfall, 1965), was complemented by the publication of three award-winning volumes of autobiography: To the Is-Land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984) and The Envoy from Mirror City (1985). The trilogy was subsequently made into a film, Angel at My Table, directed by Jane Campion.
Frame was born in Dunedin, the third of five children. George Frame was a railway worker, a job that resulted in the frequent movement of the family in the early years of Frame’s life before they finally settled, in 1930, in Oamaru (the Waimaru of her first novel Owls Do Cry).
Before her marriage Frame’s mother Lottie, a Christadelphian, had worked for a time for the family of Katherine Mansfield, the Beauchamps, and throughout her life sustained literary aspirations and wrote poetry. Critics have noted in Frame’s work the deep-rooted influence of the Christadelphian faith—the investment of everyday objects with numinous significance, the recurrent themes of literalism, apocalypse and resurrection—despite overt challenges to the validity of contemporary Christian belief in many of her novels.
The autobiography details a childhood in which Frame’s mother’s sustained faith is remarkable in the midst of poverty, debt, illness and tragedy: the severe epilepsy of Frame’s only brother, George; the drowning of her eldest sister, Myrtle, in the town swimming baths when Frame was 13 and about to enter high school (1937); and the drowning of her younger sister, Isabel, at Picton almost exactly ten years later.
These traumatic events and other life experiences find displaced fictional treatment in her writing, resulting in a rich store of personal metaphors and motifs that create organic links between her greatly varied novels, stories and poems. However, Frame has time and again warned against the ‘blurring of the fine distinction between the writer’s work and the writer’s life’, the naive treatment of her fictional creations as autobiography.
Despite financial hardship, the Frame family was rich in the love of language and literature: ‘words were revered as instruments of magic’; ‘writing poems became a family habit’. Alongside details of years of exuberant literary discovery and an intense preoccupation with language, the autobiography recalls the agonies of growing up, painfully shy, burdened by the stigma of poverty and an unusual appearance.
Frame writes of a felt ‘adolescent homelessness of self’ and of the refuge she took in a private mental ‘space’, the imaginary world of ‘Ardenue’, prefiguring her later decision to leave ‘this’ external, prosaic world for ‘that’ world of imagination and literature. Loss of innocence and imagination in the transition from childhood to adult life in a society ‘determined to drive in the rivets of conformity’ is a thematic concern that haunts Frame’s writing; children and social outcasts are often portrayed as the loci of imaginative truth.
After matriculating from Waitaki GHS (1942), Frame studied as a teacher at Dunedin Teachers’ Training College and Otago University (1943–44). A brief spell of teaching followed, but ended abruptly in 1945 when Frame walked out of the classroom on the appearance of a visiting school inspector, never to return.
During a short period of work at a boarding house, she continued her childhood occupation of creative writing; her first short story, ‘University Entrance’, was published in the NZ Listener on 22 March 1946. After a period of illness Frame entered Seacliff Mental Hospital as a voluntary patient in 1947. Mistakenly diagnosed as schizophrenic, she remained in mental hospitals (Seacliff and Avondale) for the next eight years and was subjected to over 200 electric shock treatments.
Frame drew most extensively on her experiences of these years in her second novel, Faces in the Water. While in hospital Frame continued to write short stories; twenty-four of these were collected by her friend John Money, given the title of the main story, ‘The Lagoon’ and published by the Caxton Press in 1951 as The Lagoon: Stories.
Stylistically, the stories are reminiscent of Mansfield’s ‘slices of (childhood) life’ but they foreshadow many of the unique preoccupations and imagery of the novels that followed: a dichotomy between inner and outer worlds points towards the almost obsessive treatment of dualities in the early novels—treasure/rubbish, light/dark, insane/sane, true/false, vision/sight, innocence/experience. Most of the stories are told from the point of view of children, or of various outcasts (the insane, the simple) who are in their capacity to enter into imaginative worlds barred to, or dismissed by, socially conformist adults.
Following her release from hospital in 1954, Frame was invited by Frank Sargeson to live in an old army hut in the garden of his Takapuna property. This provided a much needed period of isolation in which to write during the difficult period of reintegration into an unfamiliar post-war society: ‘I knew only of Prospero, Caliban, King Lear, and Rilke, these for me, being occasions of the past decade.’
During her time on Sargeson’s property (1954–55) Frame worked on Owls Do Cry (1957). In 1956 she travelled abroad, on a State Literary Fund grant, visiting Ibiza and Andorra before journeying to London where, at the Maudsley Clinic, the diagnosis of schizophrenia was formally rejected by a panel of psychiatrists. During the next seven years, living in and near London, Frame was extremely prolific.
In close succession she published Faces in the Water (1961) and The Edge of the Alphabet (1962) which, together with Owls Do Cry, are thought by some to form a loose trilogy. Scented Gardens for the Blind followed in 1963. In that same year two collections of stories were published: The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches was followed by the less successful Snowman, Snowman: Fables and Fantasies in which, as the subtitle suggests, Frame consciously turned from the previously favoured realistic vignette towards allegorical fable.
The novels from this first decade of Frame’s writing continue to develop the dualistic concerns of the early stories. In what Vincent O’Sullivan has called ‘the economy of the gifted victim’, alienation figures in the novels as an index of authenticity.
Frame’s Romantic visionaries—eccentrics, mad people, epileptics, oddities —are pitted against the repressive forces of a sterile conformist society stultified by philistinism, materialism and the corrupt use of language. Her characters are precariously balanced on the borders between (linguistic and social) conformity and wholesale abandonment to the dissolutions of meaning and selfhood: silence, insanity, death (often suicide).
Given the preponderance of death, suicide and madness in the novels, it is not surprising that some of Frame’s readers have criticised the negativity of a vision that risks idealising insanity and difference as privileged sites of (incommunicable) knowledge. Frame’s characters on ‘the edge of the alphabet’ lack an effective medium to communicate the ‘treasure’ to which they have privileged access: how can one express the visionary dream of wholeness in the divisive medium of social language?
The ambivalent attitude towards language expressed in the novels is typically Modernist; language is understood as dual: a duel and potential jewel (to utilise one of her frequent homophonic puns). Cutting against the possibility of the healing potential of language, properly used, is an intuition of the ‘deceit’ of words, and the ultimate failure of language to breach the ‘eternity’ that lies beyond the ‘hieroglyphic commonplace’.
This Romantic-Modernist problematic remains central in Frame’s fiction, resulting in an overt thematic concern with language and the role of the writer and persistent stylistic experimentation in novels that move increasingly away from mimetic realism, favouring destabilising narrative manoeuvres, and incorporating elements of magic realism and surrealism.
Frame’s father died in 1963 and she returned to New Zealand at the end of that year. She was awarded the Scholarship in Letters in 1964, and in that year completed The Adaptable Man (1965), begun in England the previous year. Frame was awarded the Burns Fellowship at Otago University in 1965, where she wrote The Rainbirds (1968; published in the USA in 1969 as Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room).
A State of Siege, also written in Dunedin, was published in 1966, as was The Reservoir and Other Stories (Buckland Literary Award in 1967), a collection including most of the stories from The Reservoir and Snowman, Snowman. The novels produced during this period in Dunedin differ in subtle but significant ways from the previous four. Frame continues to utilise and modify her personal metaphors but the focus shifts from the idealisation of the inner world of the victimised artist towards an exploration of social conditions.
The Adaptable Man, set in England, satirises conformity (of novelistic style and human behaviour) but offers no compensatory individual consciousness as the repository of value; the parable-like A State of Siege exposes as mistaken the rejection by its protagonist of social interaction (despite its recognised dangers) for the solipsistic pursuit of essential truth/vision; The Rainbirds focuses less on the inner world of its alienated protagonist than on the Dunedin society in which he exists.
In the course of the next few years Frame travelled to the USA for several extended periods and briefly to England, returning periodically to Dunedin. She took up several fellowships at the Yaddo Foundation, a writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York (1967, 1969, 1971); and the McDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire (1969).
The Pocket Mirror, Frame’s only published collection of poems, was published in 1967 (Literary Fund Award for Achievement, 1969). In interview, Frame has spoken of poetry as ‘the highest form of literature because you can have no dead wood in a poem’. The attraction of the genre is abundantly evident in the novels in which her already ‘poetic’ prose—intensely lyrical, heavily metaphorical—is at times completely pared down to poetry.
Frame’s only children’s book, Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun, was published in 1969. It was followed by Intensive Care (1970) and Daughter Buffalo (1972). The two novels written in this period of travel between New Zealand and America continue to evidence Frame’s development away from the late provincialism of the early novels; they are lighter in tone, the settings and characters are more cosmopolitan, the concerns increasingly universal.
The starkly opposed dualities of the earlier work, already challenged in her previous three novels, begin to give way to a recognition of the fluidity and interpenetration of the socially/linguistically constructed boundaries between, say, inner and outer or truth and falsehood. Increasingly metafictional and ironic, they utilise a barrage of narrative tricks to force a consideration of the activity of writing itself.
The ambiguous response to language still dominates, but Frame seems more willing to explore and affirm the subversive possibilities of linguistic play. Frame’s habitually dense prose (described by critics as her ‘baroque literary style’ and ‘metaphoric overdetermination’) is even more thickly patterned, its hybrid of styles and registers incorporating poetry, word lists, classical myths, clichés, literary citations and advertising jargon.
In 1972 Frame moved to the Whangaparaoa Peninsula (north of Auckland), changing her surname to Clutha in the following year, although she continued to publish as Janet Frame. Awarded the Winn-Manson Menton Fellowship in 1974 (later called the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship), she worked at Menton in France before returning to Glenfield, in Auckland, in 1975.
After a silence of seven years, Living in the Maniototo was published (1979), followed by the three volumes of autobiography and another collection of stories, You Are Now Entering the Human Heart (1983). Frame was awarded the inaugural Turnovsky Prize for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts in 1984 and the Sargeson Fellowship at the University of Auckland in 1987. She lived for various periods in several North Island towns, including Wanganui, Shannon and Levin. Levin is thought to provide a model for the New Zealand setting of The Carpathians (1989). She returned to Dunedin in 1997.
The term postmodernist is often used to describe the late novels, and certainly examples of postmodernist narrative play abound within them. Feminist critics have drawn attention to Frame’s persistent critique of predominantly patriarchal society throughout her oeuvre; postcolonial critics have noted in her work a challenge to an economy of imperial centre and colonised margin.
While amenable to such interpretations, Frame’s work eludes appropriation by any one critical approach. Her ‘postmodern’ style and ‘feminist’ or ‘postcolonial’ concerns are, as many critics have noted, utilised in the service of a consistently Modernist vision: the artist, and language properly used, are seen as potentially redemptive in a contemporary world marching blindly towards self-destruction (often envisaged as apocalypse).
In the late novels the writer is no longer portrayed as an alienated isolate unable to communicate, but rather as one with the capacity to ‘impersonate’ a variety of subject positions and able to access the ‘manifold’ of cultural and personal memory. In a world of replicas, Frame seems to suggest, the imitations of art may prove to be the closest we come to what is real and true.
Four full-length studies of Frame have been published: Patrick Evans’s Janet Frame (1977); Margaret Dalziel’s Janet Frame (1980); Judith Dell Panny’s I Have What I Gave (1992); and Gina Mercer’s Janet Frame: Subversive Fictions (1994). The Janet Frame Reader, ed. Carole Ferrier, was published in 1995.
Collections of essays include The Ring of Fire, ed. Jeanne Delbaere (1992), which contains an enumerative bibliography to 1990; The Inward Sun, ed. Elizabeth Alley (1994); and Volume 11 of the Journal of New Zealand Literature (1993), which is dedicated to discussion of Frame’s writing.
Author entry from The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature,
edited by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (1998).