Janet Frame

Janet Frame
Born (1924-08-28)28 August 1924
Dunedin, New Zealand
Died 29 January 2004(2004-01-29) (aged 79)
Dunedin, New Zealand
Occupation Novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet
Genre modernism, magic realism, postmodernism
Notable works An Angel at My Table

Nene Janet Paterson Clutha ONZ CBE (28 August 1924 – 29 January 2004) was a New Zealand author who published under the name Janet Frame. She wrote novels, short stories, poetry, juvenile fiction, and an autobiography. Frame's celebrity derived from her dramatic personal history as well as her literary career. Following years of psychiatric hospitalisation, Frame was scheduled for a lobotomy that was cancelled when, just days before the procedure, her début publication of short stories was unexpectedly awarded a national literary prize.[1]


Early years: 1924–1956

Oamaru: Clock tower on the old Post Office, described in Frame's Owls Do Cry and her autobiography, The Envoy from Mirror City

Janet Frame was born in Dunedin in the south-east of New Zealand's South Island as the third of five children of Scottish New Zealander parents.[2] She grew up in a working-class family. Her father, George Frame, worked for the New Zealand railways, and her mother Lottie (née Godfrey), served as a housemaid to the family of writer Katherine Mansfield. New Zealand's first female medical graduate, Dr Emily Hancock Siedeberg, delivered Frame at St. Helen's Hospital in 1924.

Frame spent her early childhood years in various small towns in New Zealand's South Island provinces of Otago and Southland, including Outram and Wyndham, before the family eventually settled in the coastal town of Oamaru (recognisable as the "Waimaru" of her début novel and subsequent fiction[3]). As recounted in the first volume of her autobiographies, Frame's childhood was marred by the deaths of two of her adolescent sisters, Myrtle and Isabel, who drowned in separate incidents, and the epileptic seizures suffered by her brother George (referred to as "Geordie" and "Bruddie").[4]

In 1943, Frame began training as a teacher at the Dunedin College of Education, auditing courses in English, French and psychology at the adjacent University of Otago.[5] After completing two years of theoretical studies with mixed results,[6] Frame started a year of practical placement at the Arthur Street School in Dunedin, which, according to her biographer, initially went quite well.[6] Things started to unravel later that year when she attempted suicide by ingesting a packet of aspirin. As a result of her suicide attempt, Frame began regular therapy sessions with junior lecturer John Money, to whom she developed a strong attraction,[7] and whose later work as a sexologist specialising in gender reassignment remains controversial.[8]

Seacliff Lunatic Asylum in the Otago region, where Frame was first committed in 1945.

In September 1945, Frame abandoned her teacher-training classroom at Dunedin's Arthur Street School during a visit from an inspector.[9][10] She was then briefly admitted to the psychiatric ward of the local Dunedin hospital for observation.[11] Frame was unwilling to return home to her family, where tensions between her father and brother frequently manifested in outbursts of anger and violence. As a result, Frame was transferred from the local hospital's psychiatric ward to Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, a fabled and feared mental institution located 20 miles north of Dunedin.[12] During the next eight years, Frame was repeatedly readmitted, usually voluntarily, to psychiatric hospitals in New Zealand. In addition to Seacliff, these included Avondale Lunatic Asylum, in Auckland, and Sunnyside Hospital in Christchurch. During this period, Frame was first diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia,[11] which was treated with electroconvulsive therapy and insulin.[4][13]

Owls Do Cry. Dennis Beytagh's cover illustration for Frame's début novel, released by New Zealand's Pegasus Press in 1957.

In 1951, while Frame was still a patient at Seacliff New Zealand's Caxton Press published her first book, a collection of shorts titled The Lagoon and Other Stories.[14] The volume was awarded the Hubert Church Memorial Award, at that time one of New Zealand's most prestigious literary prizes. This resulted in the cancellation of Frame's scheduled lobotomy.[15][16] Four years later, after her final discharge from Seacliff Frame met writer Frank Sargeson.[17] She lived and worked at his home in Takapuna, an Auckland suburb, from April 1955 to July 1956, producing her first full-length novel, Owls Do Cry (Pegasus, 1957).[18]

Literary career


Frame left New Zealand in late 1956, and the next seven years were most prolific in terms of publication. She lived and worked in Europe, primarily based in London, with brief sojourns to Ibiza and Andorra.[19][20] However, Frame was still struggling with anxiety and depression. She admitted herself[21] to the Maudsley in London. American-trained psychiatrist Alan Miller, who studied under John Money at Johns Hopkins University, proposed that she had never suffered from schizophrenia.[22][23] In an effort to alleviate the ill effects of her years spent in and out of psychiatric hospitals, Frame then began regular therapy sessions with psychiatrist Robert Hugh Cawley, who encouraged her to pursue her writing. Frame dedicated seven of her novels to Cawley.[24]

Frame returned to New Zealand in 1963. She accepted the Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago in 1965.[25] She later lived in several parts of New Zealand's North Island, including Auckland, Taranaki, Wanganui, the Horowhenua, Palmerston North, Waiheke, Stratford, Browns Bay and Levin.[26]

During this period Frame traveled extensively, occasionally to Europe, but principally to the United States, where she accepted residencies at the MacDowell and Yaddo artists' colonies.[27] Partly as a result of these extended stays in the U.S., Frame developed close relationships with several Americans.[28] These included the painter Theophilus Brown (whom she later referred to as "the chief experience of my life"[29]) and his long-time partner Paul John Wonner, the poet May Sarton, John Phillips Marquand and Alan Lelchuck. Frame's one-time university tutor/counsellor and longtime friend John Money worked in North America from 1947 onwards, and Frame frequently based herself at his home in Baltimore.[30]

In the 1980s Frame authored three volumes of autobiography (To the Is-land, An Angel at my Table and The Envoy from Mirror City) which collectively traced the course of her life to her return to New Zealand in 1963.[4] The Australian novelist Patrick White described the first two volumes as "amongst the wonders of the world".[31] Director Jane Campion and screenwriter Laura Jones adapted the trilogy for television broadcast. It was eventually released as an award-winning feature film, An Angel at My Table. Actresses Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh and Karen Fergusson portrayed the author at various ages. Frame's autobiographies sold better than any of her previous publications,[32] and Campion's successful film adaptation of the texts[33] introduced a new generation of readers to her work. These successes increasingly pushed Frame into the public eye.

Frame intended the autobiographies to "set the record straight" regarding her past and in particular her mental status.[34][35] However, critical and public speculation has continued to focus on her mental health.[35] In 2007, after Frame's death, The New Zealand Medical Journal published an article by a medical specialist who proposed that Frame may be on the autism spectrum,[36] a suggestion that was disputed by the author's literary executor.[37][38][39][40]


During her lifetime, Frame's work was principally published by American firm George Braziller, garnering numerous literary prizes in her native New Zealand, and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 1989 for her final novel, The Carpathians.

In Queen's Birthday Honours 1983 Frame was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to literature.[41][42] On 6 February 1990, Frame was the sixteenth appointee to The Order of New Zealand,[43][44] the nation's highest civil honour. Frame also held foreign membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and, in her native New Zealand, received two honorary doctorates as well as the status of cultural icon.[45] Rumours occasionally circulated portraying Frame as a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature, most notably in 1998, after a journalist spotted her name at the top of a list later revealed to have been in alphabetical order,[46][47] and again five years later, in 2003, when Åsa Beckman, the influential chief literary critic at the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, wrongly predicted that Frame would win the prestigious prize.[48]

Frame's writing became the focus of academic criticism from the late 1970s, with approaches ranging from Marxist and social realist, to feminist and poststructuralist. In later years, book-length monographs on Frame were published. These included Patrick Evans’s bio-critical contribution for the "Twayne's World Authors Series," Janet Frame (1977), Gina Mercer's feminist reading of the novels and autobiographies, Janet Frame: Subversive Fictions (1994), and Judith Dell Panny's allegorical approach to the works, I have what I gave: The fiction of Janet Frame (1992). A collection of essays edited by Jeanne Delbaere was first published in 1978, with a revised edition released under the title The Ring of Fire: Essays on Janet Frame in 1992. That same year, Dunedin's University of Otago hosted a conference dedicated to a discussion of Frame's work. Many of the papers were published in a special issue of The Journal of New Zealand Literature.

Wrestling with the Angel. The front cover of prominent New Zealand historian Michael King's award-winning biography on Frame, first published in 2000.

In 2000, the popular New Zealand historian Michael King published his authorised biography of Frame, Wrestling with the Angel. The book was simultaneously released in New Zealand and North America, with British and Australian editions appearing in later years.[4] King's award-winning and exhaustive work attracted both praise and criticism. Some questioned the extent to which Frame guided the hand of her biographer,[49][50][51] while others argued that he had failed to come to terms with the complexity and subtlety of his subject.[52] Adding to the controversy, King openly admitted that he withheld information "that would have been a source of embarrassment and distress to her," and that he adopted publisher Christine Cole Catley's notion of "compassionate truth." This advocates "a presentation of evidence and conclusions that fulfil the major objectives of biography, but without the revelation of information that would involve the living subject in unwarranted embarrassment, loss of face, emotional or physical pain, or a nervous or psychiatric collapse." King defended his project and maintained that future biographies on Frame would eventually fill in the gaps left by his own work.[53]

Death and posthumous publications

Janet Frame died in Dunedin in January 2004, aged 79, from acute myeloid leukaemia, shortly after becoming one of the first recipients of the New Zealand "Icon" award.[54][55] A number of posthumous works have been released since her death, including a volume of poetry entitled The Goose Bath, which was awarded New Zealand's top poetry prize in 2007. This generated a minor controversy among critics who felt the posthumous prize "set an awkward precedent".[56][57] A novella, Towards Another Summer, was also published posthumously, a work inspired by a weekend Frame spent with British journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse and his family.[58][59] In 2008, two previously unpublished short stories set in mental hospitals appeared in The New Yorker.[60] Another previously unpublished short story was carried in The New Yorker in 2010.[61] In March 2011, the New Zealand branch of Penguin Books acquired the rights to publish three new editions of Frame's work. These were: Janet Frame In Her Own Words (2011), a collection of interviews and nonfiction, Gorse is Not People: New and Uncollected Stories (2012) (Published in the US as Between My Father and the King: New and Uncollected Stories), and the novel In the Memorial Room (2013).

In 2010, Gifted, a novel by New Zealand academic and former Frame biographer Patrick Evans, was published and subsequently shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. The story is a fictionalised account of the relationship between Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson during her time living as a guest on his Takapuna property in 1955–56[62] – an era recounted in a number of works by Frame and her contemporaries and dramatised in Campion's film, An Angel At My Table (1990).[63] In 2013, Evans' novel was adapted for the stage, premiering at the Christchurch Arts Festival on 22 August 2013, followed by extended tour of New Zealand's north and south islands. While garnering positive critical reviews,[64][65][66] the promotion and staging of the production drew fierce criticism from Frame's literary executor and niece, Pamela Gordon, who maintained it "was designed to demean Frame."[67][68][69] Gordon, who has also criticised Campion's film for inaccuracies in its portrayal of Frame,[70][71] asserted that Evans' theatrical adaptation presented an unfaithful view of her famous relative.[72] Festival organiser Philip Tremewan, defended the play,[73] while director Conrad Newport maintained that Gordon was "overprotective of [Frame's] legacy."[67] Evans generally avoided the controversy, stating, "I have publicised her work and popularised it for two to three generations of students. In Gifted, the play and novel, you only have to look at the title to see what my attitude is. I really don't think I have anything to apologise for."[67]

Literary works

Memorial plaque dedicated to Janet Frame in Dunedin, on the Writers' Walk on the Octagon


Short stories

Children's fiction



Separately published stories and poems

Articles, reviews, essays and letters

Awards and honours

See also


  1. Martin, Douglas (30 January 2004). "Janet Frame, 79, Writer Who Explored Madness". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-11-17.
  2. King 2000, p. 16.
  3. Leaver-Cooper, Sheila. Janet Frame's Kingdom by the Sea: Oamaru. Dunmore (NZ), 1997
  4. 1 2 3 4 Frame, Janet. An Autobiography Century Hutchinson (NZ), 1989.
  5. King 2000, pp. 51–2.
  6. 1 2 King 2000, pp. 61–2.
  7. King 2000, pp. 64–5.
  8. Colapinto, John. As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who was Raised as a Girl. Harper Collins, 2000.
  9. King 2000, p. 66.
  10. Lloyd, Mike. "Frame Walks Out." Kotare 5.1, 2004. http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-Whi051Kota-t1-g1-t4.html#name-120555-1
  11. 1 2 King 2000, pp. 69–70.
  12. King 2000, p. 71.
  13. King 2000, pp. 97, 105.
  14. King 2000, p. 106.
  15. Frame 1991, pp. 222–23.
  16. King 2000, pp. 111–2.
  17. King 2000, pp. 123–4.
  18. King 2000, p. 133.
  19. Frame 1991, pp. 325–63
  20. King 2000, p. 144.
  21. King 2000, p. 184.
  22. Frame 1991, pp. 374–5
  23. King 2000, p. 186.
  24. King 2000, pp. 196–7.
  25. King 2000, pp. 278–282, 283–6, 292, 298, 3000, 330, 378, 517, 518.
  26. King 2000, pp. 392–3.
  27. King 2000, pp. 317–20, 324, 333, 337–40, 342–5, 347–8, 355, 358, 364, 442, 443–5.
  28. King, Michael. "Janet Frame: Antipodean phoenix in the American chicken coop." Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature 15:(2): 86–87; December 2001.
  29. King 2000, p. 347.
  30. King 2000, pp. 279–80.
  31. Patrick White, letter to sv:Ingmar Björkstén, 3 December 1985, in Patrick White: Letters, ed. David Marr, p.607
  32. King 2000, pp. 470, 490–1, 495, 497, 506.
  33. King 2000, pp. 448, 460, 466–67, 473–4, 484, 491–92, 495–6, 498, 511.
  34. Frame, Janet. "My Say." Interview with Elizabeth Alley. Concert Programme. Radio New Zealand, Wellington, NZ. 27 April 1983. Rpt In the Same Room: Conversations with New Zealand Writers. Ed. Elizabeth Alley and Mark Williams. Auckland: Auckland UP, 1992.
  35. 1 2 King 2000, p. 433.
  36. Abrahamson, Sarah. "Did Janet Frame have high-functioning autism?". Retrieved 2008-05-01.
  37. Hann, Arwen. "Autism Claim Draws Fire from Family, Mum." The Press [NZ]. 22 October 2007: 10.
  38. Sharp, Iain. "Frame of Mind" Sunday Star Times [NZ]. 21 October 2007: C8.
  39. Smith, Charmian. "Putting Janet in the Frame." Otago Daily Times [NZ]. 27 October 2007: 45.
  40. King 2000, p.208.
  41. "The Queen's Birthday Honours 1983" (15 June 1983) 85 New Zealand Gazette 1851.
  42. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 49376. p. 34. 10 June 1983.
  43. "Honours and Awards" (15 February 1990) 23 New Zealand Gazette 445 at 446.
  44. The Order of New Zealand Honours List,
  45. "The New Zealand Edge". Nzedge.com. Retrieved 2012-10-23.
  46. MacLeod, Scott. "Reclusive Frame tipped as leading Nobel candidate." New Zealand Herald. 2 October 2003.
  47. King 2000, pp. 456, 470, 497, 514.
  48. Fox, Gary. "Sth African J M Coetzee awarded Nobel prize for Literature, dashing hopes of NZ writer Janet Frame." IRN News. 3 October 2003
  49. Ricketts, Harry. "A life within the frame." The Lancet [UK] 10 November 2001: 1652.
  50. Wilkins, Damien. "In the Lock-Up." Landfall 201 [NZ] May 2001: 25–36
  51. Evans, Patrick. "Dr. Clutha’s Book of the World: Janet Paterson Frame, 1924–2004." Journal of New Zealand Literature 22: 15–3.
  52. Wikse, Maria. "Materialisations of a Woman Writer: Investigating Janet Frame's Biographical Legend" Bern (SW): Peter Lang, 2006.
  53. King, Michael. "The Compassionate Truth" Meanjin Quarterly 61.1 (2002) 34
  54. Herrick, Linda. "Belated recognition for 'icons' of arts." New Zealand Herald 2 July 2003
  55. Kitchin, Peter. "Daring to be different." The Dominion Post [NZ] 9 July 2003.
  56. "Good for the Gander" The Listener (NZ) 18 August 2007
  57. Moore, Christopher. "Dubious Decision" The Press (Christchurch, NZ), 1 August 2007
  58. King 2000, p. .
  59. Moorehouse, Geoffrey. "Out of New Zealand" Guardian [UK] 16 November 1962.
  60. Mathews, Philip. "Back on the page" The Press (Christchurch, NZ), 26 July 2008
  61. Frame, Janet. "Janet Frame: "Gavin Highly"". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2012-10-23.
  62. "gifted". Victoria.ac.nz. 2008-06-18. Retrieved 2012-10-23.
  63. See: Sargeson, Frank. More than Enough: A Memoir (1975); King, Michael. Frank Sargeson: A Life (1995); Stead, CK. All Visitors Ashore (1985); Frame, Janet. An Autobiography (19990); King, Michael. Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame (2000).
  64. http://www.odt.co.nz/entertainment/arts/271693/writers-stories-intertwine
  65. http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/christchurch-life/art-and-stage/arts-fest-2013/9078080/Gifted-The-stuff-of-dreams
  66. http://www.stuff.co.nz/taranaki-daily-news/entertainment/9100390/Literary-heavyweights-presented-in-gifted-light
  67. 1 2 3 http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/christchurch-life/art-and-stage/arts-fest-2013/9081996/Plays-creators-reject-criticism
  68. http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/christchurch-life/art-and-stage/8950383/Playwright-accused-of-demeaning-Frame
  69. http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/christchurch-life/art-and-stage/arts-fest-2013/9092881/The-limits-of-literary-licence
  70. http://slightlyframous.blogspot.com/2013/02/larger-than-life.html
  71. http://slightlyframous.blogspot.com/2011/10/how-much-jane-is-there-in-campions.html
  72. http://slightlyframous.blogspot.co.nz/2013/08/fortune-favours-fake.html
  73. http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/christchurch-life/art-and-stage/8950383/Playwright-accused-of-demeaning-Frame
  74. "Previous winners". Creative New Zealand. Retrieved 24 October 2013.


External links

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