Janet Frame

Reclusive, but world-renowned, New Zealand writer whose novels explored the depths of the human psyche

Michael King
Friday January 30, 2004
The Guardian

Janet Frame, who has died aged 79, was New Zealand's best known but least public author. The originality and power of her fiction ensured that she was frequently spoken of as a candidate for the Nobel prize for literature, most recently last year, when a journalistic leak from Stockholm revealed that she was once again on the shortlist.

The author of 12 novels, four story collections, one book of poetry and three volumes of autobiography, Frame was born in Dunedin, on the South Island. Her early life, spent in small towns in Otago and Southland, where her father worked for the railways, was blighted by a sense of alienation and the deaths by drowning of two of her sisters. While she was working as a trainee teacher in Dunedin in 1945, the combined effects of her feelings of inadequacy and the family bereavements brought on an emotional breakdown, which doctors mistook for schizophrenia - a misdiagnosis that kept her in mental hospitals for the better part of a decade.

In reference to this period, Frame would later write: "I inhabited a territory of loneliness which ... resembles the place where the dying spend their time before death, and from where those who do return, living, to the world bring, inevitably, a unique point of view that is a nightmare, a treasure, and a lifelong possession ... [It is] equal in its rapture and chilling exposure [to] the neighbourhood of the ancient gods and goddesses."

Critics would eventually suggest that it was Frame's familiarity with the extremities of experience in mental hospitals, combined with her precocious facility for language, that enabled her to burrow so far, and so convincingly, into the human psyche in her fiction. Her first book, The Lagoon And Other Stories, was published while she was still a patient at Seacliff hospital in 1952. It won New Zealand's only literary award, which led the hospital superintendent to cancel a scheduled leucotomy on Frame, an operation that might have left her in a vegetative state.

In 1955, after her release from Seacliff, Frame moved to Takapuna, Auckland, to stay with Frank Sargeson, the doyen of New Zealand writers. There, she wrote her first novel, Owls Do Cry, making extensive use of both her family tragedies and her time in hospitals. When it was published, first in New Zealand and then in the United States and Britain, it was widely praised for its originality and its insights into the world of the insane. But the correspondence of parts of the narrative to the author's own experience led to a widespread belief among readers and critics that Frame was a mad genius, whose creativity had its origin in mental disorder.

In 1956, she travelled to Europe, writing her next five books in London - the novels Faces In The Water (1961), The Edge Of The Alphabet (1962) and Scented Gardens For The Blind (1963), and two story collections, The Reservoir and Snowman, Snowman (both 1963).

Two spells in the Maudsley hospital, south London, during this period led to the verdict that she was not - and never had been - schizophrenic; and, indeed, that she was not mentally ill. She returned to New Zealand with a psychiatrist's letter to this effect, which she would occasionally brandish at critics who continued to promote the "mad woman" scenario as an explanation for her art.

From 1964 until the end of her life, Frame based herself in New Zealand, though she travelled widely, especially to England and the US. She met and corresponded with writers and artists whom she encountered at the Yaddo and MacDowell writers' colonies, among them Eudora Welty, May Sarton, Philip Roth, John Marquand Jr, Charles Neider, Alfred Kazin and the San Francisco painter and musician William Theophilus Brown, whom she described as "the chief experience of my life".

Back in New Zealand, she lived in Dunedin again, then largely in provincial North Island towns. She finally returned to Dunedin in 1997.

She wrote seven more novels, The Adaptable Man (1965), A State Of Siege (1966), The Rainbirds (1968, published in the US as Yellow Flowers In The Antipodean Room in 1969), Intensive Care (1970), Daughter Buffalo (1972), Living In The Maniototo (1979) and The Carpathians (1988); two further volumes of stories (1966 and 1983); her poetry volume, The Pocket Mirror (1967); one children's book, Mona Minum And The Smell Of The Sun (1969); and three volumes of autobiography, To The Island (1982), An Angel At My Table and The Envoy From Mirror City (both 1984).

To the frustration of her publishers and agents, Frame continued to shun publicity, which had the effect of making readers and journalists even more intrusively interested in her life than they might otherwise have been. It was in a vain attempt to quell this interest and accompanying speculation, and to have "my say" about the circumstances of her commital to mental hospitals, that led her to write autobiographically in the early 1980s.

Following the release in 1990 of Jane Campion's film, An Angel At My Table, based on the autobiographies, Frame's work was published in more than a dozen languages, and she acquired a far wider readership in Britain, Europe and the US. From this point, she had sufficient income on which to live from sales of her books.

She won a wide range of awards. They included every prize for which she was eligible in New Zealand; honorary membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1986; a Commonwealth prize for literature in 1989; Italian and Chilean awards in 1993 and 1996. She also won civil honours - a CBE in 1983, the Order of New Zealand in 1990 - and honorary doctorates and medals from three New Zealand universities. Last October, she won the inaugural New Zealand prime minister's award for literary achievement in fiction.

The novel The Carpathians, published in 1988, was the last work to appear in her lifetime. Two mild strokes, which she suffered in the early 1990s, appeared to impair her mental stamina and powers of concentration, and she also developed diabetes and ovarian cancer. None the less, for the remainder of her life, she continued to make the daily pilgrimage to her desk and to find identity and purpose in the act of writing. But she released nothing for publication beyond a handful of poems.

Frame herself was untouched by the notion that she was a genius and a world-renowned author. People could say it; that didn't make it so. To her, her reputation was but one of many features of an existence she found surreal, even preposterous - like the very fact of being alive, or of daring to use language to capture and to convey human experience. The publication of her authorised biography, Wrestling With The Angel, in 2000 was an experience she endured rather than enjoyed.

She is survived by her sister, June Gordon.

New Zealand writer Janet Frame dies, 79

David Fickling
Friday January 30, 2004
The Guardian

New Zealand's most admired writer, Janet Frame, has died of leukaemia in the South Island town of Dunedin, aged 79. Alongside the modernist short-story writer Katherine Mansfield who died in 1923, Frame was reckoned to be New Zealand's greatest author. "It's like the lights have gone out," said the Auckland-based novelist Witi Ihimaera. "The sun has gone out in New Zealand literature today."

Frame was twice mentioned as a frontrunner for the Nobel prize for literature - most recently last October when she was singled out as a committee favourite before the award was taken by South African writer JM Coetzee. At the time she had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would kill her.

She will be remembered for her depictions of mental illness and the damaging impact of life in mental institutions, drawing insight from the 10 years she spent in psychiatric hospitals after being misdiagnosed with schizophrenia after a breakdown in 1945. She described her time in hospital as a "concentrated course in the horrors of insanity". "As the years passed and the diagnosis remained, with no one apparently questioning it ... I felt hopelessness at my plight," she wrote.

In her three-volume autobiography she describes how she was subjected to electro-shock treatment and would have been lobotomised in 1952 had her first collection of short stories, The Lagoon, not won New Zealand's only book prize.

In later life she resented the belief that she was insane, her writing the outpourings of a mad genius. Most of her later work had little to do with mental illness and she wrote until the end of her life, although her last published work, The Carpathians, came out in 1988.

During her career she lived in Britain, the US, Spain and Andorra, but after her return to New Zealand in the 1980s she became increasingly reclusive. She once walked out of a New Zealand literary conference at which she was guest of honour because a speaker offered her an ovation.

Her autobiography, which introduced her work to a wider audience when it was filmed as An Angel at my Table by the director Jane Campion in 1990, was partly written as an attempt to quell the appetite for information about her life.

Janet Frame
(Filed: 30/01/2004) Telegraph
Janet Frame, who died yesterday aged 79, was a novelist, poet, essayist and short story writer; in her homeland of New Zealand she was regarded as one of the country's most distinguished literary figures, but she achieved international recognition only after her three-volume autobiography inspired Jane Campion's acclaimed film An Angel at My Table (1990).

Janet Frame's life and work were inextricably linked; much of her fiction dwelt at length on insanity, breakdown and death - all of which featured in her own life. Her autobiography, however, revealed these horrors with such lightness of touch - and even humour - that for many it was her most accessible work.

The memoir chronicled her strange and chaotic childhood, her misdiagnosis as a schizophrenic and the eight years spent in an institution before she was able to follow her dream of becoming a writer. Yet Janet Frame's transformation from a painfully shy and introspective child into a celebrated author was not one with which she was comfortable; up until her death she remained a recluse, living under an assumed name and going to considerable lengths to avoid publicity.

The third of five children, Janet Paterson Frame was born on August 28 1924 at Dunedin, in New Zealand. Her father was an impoverished railway worker whose job forced the family to move many times before they finally settled in Oamaru in 1930. Her mother, a former housemaid who had, for a time, worked for the family of Katherine Mansfield, had been born into the Christadelphian faith, which invested everyday objects with religious significance. Janet Frame wrote: "She had only to say of any commonplace object, 'Look, kiddies, a stone', to fill that stone with wonder as if it were a holy object."

In many ways, Janet Frame's childhood was a catalogue of poverty, debt, illness and tragedy: her older brother was severely epileptic, and was regularly beaten by their father; Myrtle, her eldest sister, drowned in a local swimming pool when Janet was 13; and 10 years later her younger sister, Isabel, also drowned.

But the family had a rich literary life, and although the children ran wild they were passionate about poetry and fascinated by language; Janet read voraciously, comparing herself and her sisters to the Brontes. She was also timid, and her shyness was exacerbated by her embarrassment at her unruly red hair and decayed teeth. Her awkwardness only increased with puberty (when she entered what she described as "the adolescent homelessness of self"), and she immersed herself in a world of imagination and literature in order to escape from reality.

She was, however, an exemplary pupil, and, after attending Oamaru North School and Waitaki Girls' High School, she won a place at Dunedin Teacher Training School and Otago University. In 1945 a school inspector came to visit her as she was teaching a class and, terrified of being judged, she walked out, never to return. Although she continued to study Psychology at the university, she became increasingly lonely and withdrawn, and in her lodgings one night she took a quantity of aspirin.

She awoke the next morning with nothing worse than a headache and relief that she was alive, and thought nothing of referring to the "suicide attempt" in an autobiographical essay written for a psychology class. Within days, however, her tutors suggested to her that she might "need a little rest", and she was committed to a mental hospital; she later admitted that an innocent crush on a tutor who had compared her to van Gogh had led her to romanticise the notion of being schizophrenic.

Janet Frame spent the next eight years in a series of psychiatric institutions, "a concentrated course in the horrors of insanity and the dwelling-place of those judged insane". Her second novel, Faces in the Water (1961), described her journey through "madness". "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 . . ." During her years of incarceration, and despite the shrieks and moans of her fellow inmates, the sadism of the nurses and the effects of ECT, which was administered 200 times, Janet Frame managed to write The Lagoon, a collection of short stories.

In 1954 she was about to undergo a frontal lobotomy when one of the doctors who was to perform the operation happened to read that her book had won a literary prize. "I've decided," he told her, "that you should remain as you are." As Janet Frame herself wrote more than once in her autobiography: "My writing saved me."

She was released from hospital and, still fragile, was taken in by the New Zealand author Frank Sargeson, who encouraged her to write and allowed her to live in an old army hut in his garden. During this period she worked on Owls Do Cry (1961), a strongly autobiographical account of four children from an impoverished family.

In 1956 Janet Frame won a literary travel scholarship and sailed to Europe. A spell in Ibiza (during which she had a love affair with an American whose child she miscarried) was followed by seven years in Britain. In London, where the diagnosis of schizophrenia was formally rejected by the Maudsley hospital, she wrote extensively, producing The Edge of the Alphabet (1962) and Scented Gardens for the Blind (1963). The Daily Telegraph, reviewing Scented Gardens, described her as "a specialist in depicting mental anguish and unbalance" with her "intense, nervous, witty euphonious prose that seems to come direct from the experience she is dealing with".

On the death of her father in 1963, Janet Frame returned to New Zealand. In 1965 The Adaptable Man was published, followed by A State of Siege (1967). The Rainbirds (1968) was about a young man who awakes from a coma to find that everyone had expected him to die; rather than being overjoyed at his recovery, they are merely miserably disorientated. Like much of her work, its theme was alienation. Her writing often pitted misfits against the repressive puritanism and philistinism of conformist society.

Daughter Buffalo (1972) was written during a period when Janet Frame was travelling between New Zealand and America. But in 1972 she moved to the Whangaparaoa Peninsula (north of Auckland), and produced no work until Living in the Manioto (1981), described by The Daily Telegraph as "probably as near as a masterpiece as we are likely to see this year".

The three volumes of her autobiography, To the Is-Land, The Envoy from Mirror City and An Angel at My Table, were published in Britain in 1983, 1984 and 1985. In 1990, the publication of all three in a single volume prompted Michael Holroyd, writing in the Sunday Times, to describe it as "one of the greatest autobiographies written this century".

Janet Frame received many honours. She was a Burns Scholar, a Sargeson Fellow and was awarded the New Zealand Scholarship in Letters. A later book, The Carpathians (1989), won the Commonwealth Literature Prize. In 1983 she was appointed CBE. Last year she was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Although she wrote under her own name, for much of her later life she lived under the pseudonym Janet Clutha. After the release of the film of An Angel at My Table, there were many attempts to interview her, but few were successful. She greeted the many accolades she received with a modesty bordering on disbelief. "I am not really a writer," she explained. "I am just someone who is haunted, and I will write the hauntings down." She had written her autobiography, she would say, only as an attempt to set the record straight after so many critics had identified autobiographical truths in her fiction.

In 2003 Janet Frame was diagnosed with terminal cancer. "The prospect of having one's tomorrow's cut off," she said, "at first it was quite alarming but I've got used to it now."

She was unmarried.