Frame, Janet (1924—)

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Frame, Janet (1924—)

New Zealand writer who survived a childhood of poverty and misfortune and many years of incarceration in mental hospitals to write a wealth of novels, poems and short stories, as well as an autobiography. Born Janet Patterson Frame on August 28, 1924, in Dunedin, New Zealand; third of five children of Lottie Clarice Godfrey (a dental nurse and housemaid until her children were born) and George Samuel Frame (a railway worker); attended public school before entering Dunedin Training College for teachers and Otago University (no degree); never married, no children.

During final year of teacher's training was committed for six weeks to Seacliff mental hospital (1945); submitted first collection of stories for publication (1945); worked as housemaid and waitress (1946); recommitted to psychiatric hospital, where she stayed for most of the next eight years (1947); won the Hubert Church award for The Lagoon (1951); released from psychiatric hospital (1955); completed her first novel, Owls Do Cry, and, with a grant from the New Zealand Literary Fund, traveled to Europe, where she spent seven years and completed three novels and two volumes of stories (1957); returned to New Zealand (1964), where she wrote seven more novels, another volume of stories, a volume of poetry, and a children's book.

Selected publications:

The Lagoon and Other Stories (Caxton, 1951); Owls Do Cry (Pegasus, 1957); Faces in the Water (Pegasus, 1961); The Edge of the Alphabet (Pegasus, 1962); The Reservoir, Stories and Sketches (Braziller, 1963); Snowman, Snowman: Fables and Fantasies (Braziller, 1963); Scented Gardens for the Blind (Pegasus, 1963); The Adaptable Man (Braziller, 1965); A State of Siege (Braziller, 1966); (poems) The Pocket Mirror (Braziller, 1967); The Rainbirds (W.H. Allen, 1968); Intensive Care (Braziller, 1970); Daughter Buffalo (Braziller, 1972); Living in the Maniototo (Braziller, 1979); (selected short stories) You Are Now Entering the Human Heart (Victoria University Press, 1983); The Carpathians (Braziller, 1988). The three-volume An Autobiography was collected in one volume (Braziller, 1991) and issued separately as To the Is-Land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984), and The Envoy from Mirror City (1985).

Janet Frame survived a life marked by hardship and bereavement to become one of the most prolific and innovative of New Zealand's writers. She grew up during the Depression and spent much of her life in poverty. One of the few in her family ever to complete a formal education, Frame was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic as a young adult and spent many years incarcerated in a mental hospital. Despite these and other misfortunes, she went on to write eleven novels, three volumes of stories, a book of poetry, and a children's story. Words were a lifelong source of mystery and fascination to her, and it was as a writer that she found her place in the world.

Janet Frame was delivered by the first woman medical graduate in New Zealand, Dr. Emily Seideberg McKinnon , at St. Helen's Hospital in Dunedin. She was known as "the baby who was always hungry." The third of what was soon to be five children, Janet moved with her family for the first time when she was three weeks old. Her father was a railway engineer, and the family was uprooted often. They lived in trackside huts and ramshackle housing furnished by the railroad; much of it was cramped and uncomfortable, without running water, heat, or electricity. Janet and her sisters slept four to a bed; it wasn't until she went away to college that she experienced sleeping on sheets. Labor was exhaustive: milking cows, washing and mending clothes, carrying water.

Frame was extremely shy. In her Autobiography, she describes herself as "an anxious child full of twitches and tics, standing alone in the playground at school, wearing day after day the same hand-me-down tartan skirt that was almost stiff with constant wear." With her unruly, bright-red hair and tattered, patched uniform, she felt unattractive and different from her schoolmates. She was awkward in her body and around other children. Her life at home was also troubled: in addition to the ever-present threat of financial doom, Janet's older brother began having epileptic seizures when she was eight. This cast a shadow of unreality and fear over the house. It also added to the discord between Janet's parents: her mother Lottie Clarice Frame devoted herself to caring for the boy and began a fervent and never-ending search for a cure, while her father George blamed his son, claiming that he could stop the seizures if he really tried.

There were also pleasures and escapes. Frame enjoyed the companionship of her sisters, and together they told stories, wrote poems, and explored the countryside. The natural world was a source of wonder and refuge; though she felt ill-at-ease with her schoolmates, Frame was at home outdoors. Throughout her life, she loved the New Zealand landscape: the rivers and creeks, the ocean, fields, and woods.

And there were words. From early childhood, Frame was intrigued by them: what they meant and didn't mean, how they looked and sounded, their relationship to the objects, people and feelings around her. Lottie, who had always dreamed of being a poet, often recited verse to her children, poems inspired by her surroundings—the lighthouse at Waipapa, the Aurora Astralis, the Southern Lights in the night sky, shipwrecks, tidal waves. Frame's imagination was captured; at an early age, she and her siblings began composing poems and entering them in competitions. In her autobiography, she describes her earliest poems as "a mixture of conventional ideas about 'poetic' vocabulary and the cowboy and prison songs recorded in my other notebooks and the contents of the small popular song books brought home by [my sister] Myrtle and the songs sung by my parents and grandparents."

I did not know my own identity. I was burgled of body and hung in the sky like a woman of straw.

—Janet Frame, Faces in the Water

In New Zealand, as in the rest of the world, the Depression was a time of hardship. There was talk of bankruptcy, of wage cuts, of being on the dole. Doctor bills mounted in the Frame household as Janet's brother continued to suffer from epilepsy and Lottie searched for effective treatment. Before air travel became common, New Zealand was remote from the rest of the world. News traveled by radio and film. The Frame girls were avid movie fans; in contrast to the bleak economic landscape around them, the luxury and glamour that appeared on screen was enticing. They practiced singing and dancing and dreamed of being "discovered" and going to Hollywood.

Janet learned at an early age about the unexpectedness of death, of the finality of loss, of the grief of parting. In 1936, when Janet was 12, her 16-year-old sister drowned at the public pool. Nine years later, this same lesson was reemphasized when her younger sister also drowned in a swimming accident.

Frame did well in school, though she continued to feel different from her classmates and suffered embarrassment because of her clothes, her hair, and her developing body. "There were the usual worries about money," she writes in her autobiography. "And an increasing worry for me about my school tunic, which was now too tight over my growing breasts but which had to last me until I left school," a total of six years. There were "the dramatic terrifying continuing episodes" of her brother's illness, and a growing climate of fear, prejudice, and anticipation in the country as the speeches of Adolf Hitler began to be broadcast over the airwaves and talk of war in Europe escalated. "I did my best to smooth the surface of life," Frame wrote. "To be, in a sense, invisible, to conceal all in myself that might attract disapproval or anger. I had no close girlfriends at school and no boyfriends."

Frame finished high school, and, unlike most of the girls around her who went to work in the nearby woolen mill, she applied and was accepted to teacher's training college. Once again clothes were a problem; looking at the list of essential clothing, Frame was "overcome by a hopeless feeling of unreality. Where, except in films, did people own so many dresses, costumes, shoes, coats?" In an effort to raise money, she wrote to a Member of Parliament. When he didn't respond, she appealed to relatives and accelerated her submission of stories and poetry to competitions.

At Dunedin Teacher's College and at Otago University where she took courses in French and English, Frame found both freedom and loneliness. "The gradual learning of the language, the attitudes, the customs of behavior and dress [of the college] produced in me a euphoria of belonging which was intensified and contradicted by my actual feeling of isolation," she wrote. Her ignorance of the outside world made everyday tasks, such as posting a letter, seem challenging. Her shyness caused her to refuse meals that the aunt with whom she was boarding offered; consequently, she was often hungry. Though she wanted very much to contribute to the college magazine, she lacked the courage even to pick up a copy from the rack outside the school. Not surprisingly, she didn't make friends and spent most of her time alone. Her only romance was with poetry and literature; among those she read were James Joyce, Virginia Woolf , W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and T.S. Eliot.

Nineteen forty-five was a pivotal year in Janet Frame's life. She was completing her probationary year as a teacher; at the end of the

term, she hoped to receive her certificate. She would turn 21 in August of that year, the same month that the atom bomb was dropped on Japan and World War II ended. She had also begun to take courses in psychology at the university and had published her first story in the Listener for which she was paid two guineas. But while she enjoyed teaching, she secretly dreamed of becoming a poet. And while she was good at understanding and encouraging her students, she failed at being accepted as a member of the staff. She dreaded the final classroom evaluation, which was required for her certificate, and devised a method for postponing it as long as possible. One spring day toward the end of the term, the headmaster and inspector appeared in her classroom, and Frame knew she could no longer delay the inevitable. She simply excused herself and walked out the door, never to return.

"I felt completely isolated," Frame writes. "I knew no one to confide in, to get advice from; and there was nowhere I could go. What, in all the world, could I do to earn my living and still live as myself, as I knew myself to be." Desperate, believing that she had no other escape, she cleaned her room, swallowed a package of aspirin, and laid down to die.

When she woke the next morning with a roaring in her ears and a bloody nose, her failure at school seemed minor. She was delighted and thankful just to be alive. She resigned from teacher's college and found a job washing dishes but continued her course at the university. When she mentioned in a school assignment that she had attempted suicide, concerned teachers persuaded her to check into the hospital for a rest. Frame agreed. It was only after she was admitted that she learned she was in the psychiatric ward.

This began a period of about eight years during which Frame spent most of her time incarcerated in mental hospitals. In her novel Faces in the Water, she describes this part of her life in great and moving detail, evoking the sights, smells, events and torments that she and a great many other women suffered. Istina Mavet, the protagonist of this novel, says:

I will write 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-colored sea where hammerhead sharks in tropical ease swam side by side with the seals and the polar bears. I was alone on the ice.

The conditions in which Frame and the other patients lived and the treatment they received were often terrifying, cruel, and painful. They were stripped of their belongings with, as Frame writes, "no clothes of their own to wear, no handbags, purses, no possessions but a temporary bed to sleep in with a locker beside it, and a room to sit in and stare." Food was often rotting and inedible, hygiene was lax. Many patients suffered from tuberculosis. Doctors spent little time treating, or even talking to or observing, patients, many of whom were forgotten, with little hope of ever resuming life outside the institution.

Frame had been diagnosed with schizophrenia after only the briefest consultation with a doctor. She, like many of her fellow patients, was subjected to electroshock treatments, which were often administered as punishment for being uncooperative or not having the proper attitude. In Frame's case, she received over 200 applications of electroshock, each one, she says, "the equivalent, in degree of fear, to an execution."

Janet Frame had always been different from many of those around her and had often felt outside the normal flow of life, but she was not insane. Neither, she discovered, were a great many of the women who were incarcerated along with her, though they would most likely spend their lives committed to a mental hospital. More than ever before, Frame experienced society's intolerance for people who are different; each day she witnessed the misery accorded to those who cannot or will not conform to established expectations. This knowledge informed her writing for the rest of her career.

The institution was often like a foreign land, with a language and customs of its own. Frame learned the routines. She made friends, was moved from ward to ward, and endured weeks in solitary confinement. At times it seemed that there was no way out, that she would spend the rest of her life behind locked doors. It was her writing that finally saved her. In 1951, the doctors decided that Frame's condition would be improved by a lobotomy—a procedure that was becoming popular at the time—and scheduled her for surgery. Then one of the doctors at the hospital happened to read a notice in the newspaper announcing that Frame's first collection of stories, The Lagoon—which had been published without her knowledge during her stay in the hospital—had won the Hubert Church Award. The doctor decided that Frame's mind was unique and should remain intact. The surgery was canceled, and Frame was released shortly after.

Once again Frame was confronted with the necessity of earning a living. She still wanted to write. She worked for awhile as a housemaid in a boardinghouse, then as a waitress in the Grand Hotel in Dunedin. She struggled to afford a room, meals, a typewriter, and time to write. She published a few poems in the Listener and completed several short stories. She discovered Kafka and Faulkner and began to take an avid interest in the literature of her native land. In the volumes of slim books published by small New Zealand presses, she found stories and poetry that spoke of the mountains, sea, and rivers that she had known and loved all her life.

In 1954, when Frame was 30, she moved north to Auckland to live with her sister. There she met the writer Frank Sargeson, who offered to let her live in an army hut in his garden. He arranged for her to receive £3 a week in disability assistance and encouraged her to write every day. Frame recalls:

I had an army hut containing: a bed, a builtin desk with a kerosene lamp, a rush mat on the floor, a small wardrobe with an old curtain strung in front, and a small window by the head of the bed.… I thus had every thing I desired and needed, as well as the regret of wondering why I had taken so many years to find it.

She had a place to live and work undisturbed, with no one to dictate how she should eat, dress, act, or speak. Sargeson treated her like a writer and introduced her to such authors as Proust and Tolstoy. When she completed her first novel, Owls Do Cry, Sargeson helped her apply for a grant from the Literary Fund to "travel overseas and broaden her experience."

Frame's novel was accepted and published; that same year, her mother died. Her travel grant was awarded and the day after her 32nd birthday, after a month of devastating seasickness, Frame landed in London. She stayed several weeks before traveling to the Spanish island of Ibiza where, she had been told, life was cheap and her grant money would last the longest.

She was captivated by the beauty of the island, and the warmth of its inhabitants. She wrote during the day, took long walks, and learned Spanish. And, for the first time in her life, she fell in love. Bernard was a young American visiting on the island. "I thought Bernard's laughter was the most joyous I had ever heard," Frame wrote. "The sound seemed to have the right assembly to connect with a jagged shape inside my heart. I could not otherwise explain the delight of listening to his laughter."

When Frame left Ibiza, she was pregnant. Bernard had left before her, not suspecting that he was the father of her child. On the advice of friends, Frame—whose funds were now low—traveled to Andorra, where she had been told her money would last even longer. She arrived in the snow of the Pyrenees feeling the loss of her lover, and with both wonder and dread at the thought of the life she now carried inside her. She miscarried, however, and, in the confusion of feelings that followed, accepted the marriage proposal of an Italian resistance fighter she had met in Andorra. She was not in love. Realizing her mistake, and under pretense of collecting belongings she had left in England, she returned to London, where she stayed for the next seven years.

In London, she took a job as an usher at the Regal Theater; she also found a literary agent. Feeling that she wanted to know the truth of her past mental condition, she checked into the Maudsley Hospital—known for its progressive and distinguished psychiatric work—and stayed as a patient for six weeks, undergoing all manner of tests. The doctors were unanimous in confirming what Frame had suspected: that she had never suffered from schizophrenia, that she should never have been admitted to a mental hospital, that most of the problems she experienced were a direct result of her stay there. Most important, her doctor felt that Frame genuinely needed to write, and that she should arrange her life in a way that would make this possible. She should feel free to live alone, to join in activities with others only if she were so inclined.

Frame entered a very productive period. She signed on for National Assistance and with this financial support was able to write every day. While Owls Do Cry was being published, she completed Faces in the Water, a novel drawn from her experience in the mental hospital. The book was a success, selling more than her previous novel and earning her a £100 advance, with a similar sum from her American publisher. Reviews were favorable, and Frame immediately began work on her next novel, The Edge of the Alphabet.

Every six months the National Assistance inspector arrived, and Frame held her breath, hoping to be funded for another half year. During the course of one winter, she wrote two volumes of stories from which The New Yorker and other magazines chose. Suddenly her bank account held £600; she was making a living as a writer. She finished another novel, Scented Gardens for the Blind.

Frame was reviewed widely and often favorably; still, she had to learn to cope with the ups and downs of critical opinion. "Likely a work of genius," one reviewer said. "Unreadable in the worst sense," said another. Both were reviewing the same book. Frame tried to guard herself from being inflated by the good reviews, devastated by the bad. More and more she lived in the world of fiction: writing by day, going to the cinema in the late afternoon, taking solitary walks.

In 1963, when Frame received a letter from her sister telling of her father's death, she realized that she wanted to return to live and work in New Zealand, in her own words "the country where [I] first saw daylight and the sun and the dark.… Now that writing was my only occupation, regardless of the critical and financial outcome, I felt I had found my 'place' at a deeper level than any landscape of any country would provide." She took the long sea journey back and was startled to find members of the press waiting to meet her. She had become a celebrity, an author with a reputation.

The following year, 1964, Frame was awarded a Scholarship in Letters, which allowed her to live and write without financial worry for a year. In 1965, she was made a Burns Fellow at the University of Otago, which enabled her to buy a cottage. She went on to write more novels and to become one of the few non-U.S. writers awarded honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1989, she won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for The Carpathians. In the early 1980s, the three volumes of her autobiography, titled To the IsLand, An Angel at My Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City, appeared. The London Sunday Times called it "one of the greatest autobiographies written this century." She was now widely considered the finest novelist New Zealand had ever produced.


Frame, Janet. An Autobiography. NY: George Braziller, 1991.

The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

related media:

An Angel at My Table (motion picture) directed by Jane Campion , starring Kerry Fox , screenplay by Laura Jones , produced by Hibiscus Films (the film portrays Frame's life from early childhood on).

Leslie Larson , Copyrighting and Catalog Manager at the University of California Press, Oakland, California