Frame, Janet


Janet Paterson Frame


28 August 1924; Dunedin


29 January 2004 (aged 79); Dunedin


Poet, Short Story Writer, Novelist

Associated with

modernism, post-modernism, magic realism


Rainer Maria Rilke, Virginia Woolf, Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, W. H. Auden, James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Gustave Flaubert, William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, William Styron, Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen Spender, Robert Browning, Lewis Carroll, Nathalie Sarraute, May Sarton, Patrick White, Frank Sargeson, James K. Baxter, Ruth Dallas, Denis Glover

Janet Paterson Frame, ONZ, CBE (28 August 1924 – 29 January 2004) wrote eleven novels, four collections of short stories, a book of poetry, an edition of juvenile fiction, and three volumes of autobiography during her lifetime. Since her death, a twelfth novel, a second volume of poetry, and a handful of short stories have been released.

Frame's celebrity is informed by her dramatic personal history as well as her literary career. Following years of psychiatric hospitalisation, Frame was scheduled for a lobotomy that was canceled when, just days before the procedure, her debut publication of short stories was unexpectedly awarded a national literary prize.[1] These dramatic personal experiences feature prominently in Frame's autobiographical trilogy and director Jane Campion's popular film adaptation of the texts, with recognisably autobiographical elements further resurfacing in many of her fictional publications.King 2000, pp. 84, 170–74, 210, 220,23, 287, 377, 456.

Characterised by scholar Simone Oettli as a writer who simultaneously sought fame and anonymity,[2] Frame eschewed the dominant New Zealand literary realism of the post-war era, combining prose, poetry, and modernist elements with a magical realist style,[3] garnering numerous local literary prizes despite mixed critical and public reception.[4]

Biographical overview Edit

1924–1956: early years Edit

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.King 2000, p. 16. 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[5]). 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").[6]

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.King 2000, pp. 51–2. After completing two years of theoretical studies with mixed results,[7] Frame started a year of practical placement at the Arthur Street School in Dunedin, which, according to her biographer, initially went quite well.[7] 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.King 2000, pp. 64–5.


Seacliff Lunatic Aslymm, 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.King 2000, p. 66.[8] She was then briefly admitted to the psychiatric ward of the local Dunedin hospital for observation.King 2000, pp. 69–70. 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.King 2000, p. 71. 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,King 2000, pp. 69–70. which was treated with electroconvulsive therapy and insulin shock therapy.King 2000, pp. 97, 105.


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 Lunatic Asylum, Caxton Press published her first book, a collection of short stories titled The Lagoon and Other Stories.King 2000, p. 106. 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.Frame 1991, pp. 222–23; King 2000, pp. 111–2. Four years later, after her final discharge from Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, Frame met writer Frank Sargeson.King 2000, pp. 123–4. She lived and worked at his home in the Auckland suburb of Takapuna from April 1955 to July 1956, producing her first full-length novel, Owls Do Cry (Pegasus, 1957).King 2000, p. 133.

1957–1989: literary careerEdit

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.Frame 1991, pp. 325–63; King 2000, p. 144. However, Frame was still struggling with anxiety and depression. She admitted herselfKing 2000, p. 184. to the Maudsley Hospital in London. American-trained psychiatrist Alan Miller, who studied under John Money at Johns Hopkins University, proposed that she had never suffered from schizophrenia.Frame 1991, pp. 374–5; King 2000, p. 186. 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 psychoanalyst Robert Hugh Cawley, who encouraged her to pursue her writing. Frame would eventually dedicate seven of her novels to Cawley.King 2000, pp. 196–7.

Frame returned to New Zealand in 1963. She accepted the Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago in 1965.King 2000, pp. 278–282, 283–6, 292, 298, 3000, 330, 378, 517, 518. She later lived in several parts of the North Island, including Auckland, Taranaki, Wanganui, the Horowhenua, Palmerston North, Waiheke Island, Stratford, Browns Bay and Levin.King 2000, pp. 392–3.

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.King 2000, pp. 317–20, 324, 333, 337–40, 342–5, 347–8, 355, 358, 364, 442, 443–5. Partly as a result of these extended stays in the U.S., Frame developed close relationships with several Americans.[9] These included the painter Theophilus Brown (whom she later referred to as "the chief experience of my life"King 2000, p. 347.) and his long-time partner Paul John Wonner, the poet May Sarton, John Marquand, Jr. and Alan Lelchuck. Frame's one-time university tutor/counselor and longtime friend John Money worked in North America from 1947 onwards, and Frame frequently based herself at his home in Baltimore.King 2000, pp. 279–80.

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.[6] 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,King 2000, pp. 470, 490–1, 495, 497, 506. and Campion's successful film adaptation of the textsKing 2000, pp. 448, 460, 466–67, 473–4, 484, 491–92, 495–6, 498, 511. 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.[10]King 2000, p. 433. However, critical and public speculation has continued to focus on her mental health.King 2000, p. 433. In 2007, after Frame's death, The New Zealand Medical Journal published an article by a medical specialist who proposed that Frame may have registered on what is referred to as the autistic spectrum,[11] a suggestion that was disputed by the author's literary executor.[12][13][14]King 2000, p.208.

1990–2000: adaptations & celebrityEdit

During her lifetime, Frame's work was principally published by American firm [ George Braziller], garnering numerous literary prizes both at home and internationally, including the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 1989 for her final novel, The Carpathians. In 1983 Frame became a Commander of the Order of British Empire (CBE) for services to literature. In 1990, she was made a member of the Order of New Zealand, the country's highest civil honour.[15] Frame also held foreign membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, received honorary doctorates from two New Zealand universities, and achieved recognition as a cultural icon in New Zealand.[16] 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,[17]King 2000, pp. 456, 470, 497, 514. 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.[18]

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.[6] 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,[19][20][21] while others argued that he had failed to come to terms with the complexity and subtlety of his subject.[22] 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 [sic] 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.[23]

Death & posthumous publicationsEdit

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.[24][25] A handful 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 the nation's literarchy" who felt the posthumous prize "set an awkward precedent".[26][27] 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.King 2000, p. XXX.[28] In 2008, two previously unpublished short stories set in mental hospitals appeared in The New Yorker.[29] Another previously unpublished short story was carried in The New Yorker in 2010.[30] Also 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.[31] In March 2011, the New Zealand branch of Penguin Books acquired the rights to publish three new editions of Frame's work. The new editions are reported to include a collection of non-fiction essays and interviews, a second collection of uncollected short stories, and a previously unpublished novella authored by Frame during her brief stay in Ibiza in November 1956.

Literary works Edit

Novels Edit

Short story collections Edit

Children's fiction Edit

Poetry Edit

Angel at my table movie poster

An Angel at My Table. The movie poster for Jane Campion's popular film adaptation of Frame's autobiographies, which introduced the author's work to a broader audience.

Autobiography Edit

Separately published stories and poems Edit

Articles, reviews, essays and letters Edit

  • 1953. "A Letter to Frank Sargeson" in Landfall 25, March 1953
  • 1954. "Review of Terence Journet's Take My Tip" in Landfall 32, December 1954
  • 1955. "Review of A Fable by William Faulkner" in Parson's Packet, no. 36, October–December 1955
  • 1964. "Memory and a Pocketful of Words" in Times Literary Supplement, 4 June 1964
  • 1964. "This Desirable Property" in New Zealand Listener, 3 July 1964
  • 1965. "Beginnings" in Landfall (NZ) 73, March 1965
  • 1968. "The Burns Fellowship" in Landfall (NZ) 87, September 1968
  • 1973. "Charles Brasch 1909–1973: Tributes and Memories from His Friends" in Islands (NZ) 5, Spring 1973
  • 1975. "Janet Frame on Tales from Grimm" in Education (NZ) 24.9, 1975
  • 1982. "Departures and Returns" in G. Amirthanayagan (ed.) Writers in East-West Encounter, London: Macmillan, 1982 (Originally delivered as a paper at the International Colloquium on the Cross-Cultural Encounter in Literature, East-West Center, Honolulu, October 1977).
  • 1984. "A last Letter to Frank Sargeson" in Islands (NZ) 33, July

Awards and honours Edit

  • 1951: Hubert Church Prose Award (The Lagoon and other Stories)
  • 1956: New Zealand Literary Fund Grant
  • 1958: New Zealand Literary Fund Award for Achievement (Owls Do Cry)
  • 1964: Hubert Church Prose Award (Scented Gardens for the Blind); New Zealand Literary Fund Scholarship in Letters.
  • 1965: Robert Burns Fellowship, University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ
  • 1967: "Buckland Literary Award." (The Reservoir and Other Stories/A State of Siege)
  • 1969: New Zealand Literary Fund Award (The Pocket Mirror: Poems)
  • 1971: Buckland Literary Award (Intensive Care); Hubert Church Prose Award." (Intensive Care)
  • 1972: President of Honour: P.E.N. International New Zealand Centre, Wellington, NZ
  • 1973: James Wattie Book of the Year Award (Daughter Buffallo)
  • 1974: Hubert Church Prose Award (Daughter Buffallo); Winn-Manson Menton Fellowship.
  • 1978: Honorary Doctor of Literature (D.Litt. Honoris Causa) University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ
  • 1979: Buckland Literary Award (Living in the Maniototo)
  • 1980: New Zealand Book Award for Fiction (Living in the Maniototo)
  • 1983: Buckland Literary Award; Sir James Wattie Book of the Year Award (To the Is-Land); C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire)
  • 1984: Frank Sargeson Fellowship, University of Auckland, NZ
  • 1984: New Zealand Book Award for Non-Fiction (An Angel at My Table); Sir James Wattie Book of the Year Award (An Angel at My Table); Turnovsky Prize for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts
  • 1985: Sir James Wattie Book of the Year Award (The Envoy from Mirror City)
  • 1986: New Zealand Book Award for Non-Fiction (The Envoy from Mirror City); Honorary Foreign Member: The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
  • 1989: Ansett New Zealand Book Award for Fiction; Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (The Carpathians)
  • 1990: O.N.Z. (Member, Order of New Zealand)
  • 1992: Honorary Doctor of Literature (D.Litt), University of Waikato, Hamilton, NZ
  • 1994: Massey University Medal, Massey University, Palmerston North, NZ
  • 2003: Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Artists; New Zealand Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement
  • 2007: Montana Book Award for Poetry (The Goose Bath)

References Edit

  1. Martin, Douglas. "Janet Frame, 79, Writer Who Explored Madness" from New York Times 30 January 2004,accessed on 17 November 2007
  2. Oettli, Simone. Reviewing Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame, by Michael King. World Literature Today 76.1 Winter 2002: 142.
  3. McLauchlan, Gordon. "A literary angel mourned" in The New Zealand Herald 31 January 2004. accessed on 6 October 2011
  4. Reid, Tony. "Visionary view of the 'tapestry of words.'" Interview with Janet Frame. New Zealand Herald 12 February 1983: 2.1
  5. Leaver-Cooper, Sheila. Janet Frame's Kingdom by the Sea: Oamaru. Dunmore (NZ), 1997
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Frame, Janet. An Autobiography Century Hutchinson (NZ), 1989.
  7. 7.0 7.1 King 2000, pp. 61–2.
  8. Lloyd, Mike. "Frame Walks Out." Kotare 5.1, 2004.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Abrahamson, Sarah. Did Janet Frame have high-functioning autism? accessed 1 May 2005
  12. Hann, Arwen. "Autism Claim Draws Fire from Family, Mum." The Press [NZ]. 22 October 2007: 10.
  13. Sharp, Iain. "Frame of Mind" Sunday Star Times [NZ]. 21 October 2007: C8.
  14. Smith, Charmian. "Putting Janet in the Frame." Otago Daily Times [NZ]. 27 October 2007: 45.
  15. The Order of New Zealand Honours List.
  16. The New Zealand Edge.
  17. MacLeod, Scott. “Reclusive Frame tipped as leading Nobel candidate.” New Zealand Herald. 2 October 2003.
  18. Fox, Gary. "Sth African J M Coetzee awarded Nobel prize for Literature, dashing hopes of NZ writer Janet Frame." IRN News. 3 October 2003
  19. Ricketts, Harry. "A life within the frame." The Lancet [UK] 10 November 2001: 1652.
  20. Wilkins, Damien. "In the Lock-Up." Landfall 201 [NZ] May 2001: 25–36
  21. Evans, Patrick. "Dr. Clutha’s Book of the World: Janet Paterson Frame, 1924–2004." Journal of New Zealand Literature 22: 15–3.
  22. Wikse, Maria. "Materialisations of a Woman Writer: Investigating Janet Frame's Biographical Legend" Bern (SW): Peter Lang, 2006.
  23. King, Michael. "The Compassionate Truth" Meanjin Quarterly 61.1 (2002) 34
  24. Herrick, Linda. "Belated recognition for 'icons' of arts." New Zealand Herald 2 July 2003
  25. Kitchin, Peter. "Daring to be different." The Dominion Post [NZ] 9 July 2003.
  26. "Good for the Gander" The Listener (NZ) 18 August 2007
  27. Moore, Christopher. "Dubious Decision" The Press (Christchurch, NZ), 1 August 2007
  28. Moorehouse, Geoffrey. "Out of New Zealand" Guardian [UK] 16 November 1962.
  29. Mathews, Philip. "Back on the page" The Press (Christchurch, NZ), 26 July 2008

Sources Edit

  • Delbaere, Jeanne, ed. The Ring of Fire. Essays on Janet Frame. Dangaroo Press (Aarhus),1992.
  • Evans, Patrick. "Dr. Clutha’s Book of the World: Janet Paterson Frame, 1924–2004." Journal of New Zealand Literature 22: 15–3.
  • Finlayson, Claire. "A Bolder Spirit." University of Otago Magazine. (NZ) February 2005: 13–14.
  • Frame, Janet. An Autobiography. (collected edition). Auckland: Century Hutchinson, 1989; New York: George Braziller, 1991.
  • King, Michael. "The Compassionate Truth." Meanjin Quarterly 61.1 (2002): 24–34.
  • King, Michael. An Inward Sun: The World of Janet Frame. Penguin (NZ), 2002.
  • King, Michael. Tread Softly for you Tread on My Life. Cape Catley (NZ), 2001
  • King, Michael. Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame. Penguin (NZ), 2000
  • "Legendary NZ writer Janet Frame dies". New Zealand Herald. 29 January 2004.

External linksEdit

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