Janet Frame was born in Dunedin New Zealand in 1924 into a working class family. She was raised with a love of words, of literature and of nature, and her writing talent was recognised at an early age. However writing, especially for a woman, was not regarded as a 'real job'.
‘They think I'm going to be a schoolteacher but I'm going to be a poet’
(Autobiography Volume 1)
The fate befalling the young woman who wanted ‘to be a poet’ has been well documented. Desperately unhappy because of family tragedies and finding herself heading towards the wrong vocation (as a schoolteacher), her only escape appeared to be in submission to society's judgement of her as abnormal. She spent four and a half years out of eight years, incarcerated in mental hospitals. The story of her almost miraculous survival of the horrors and brutalising treatment in unenlightened institutions has become well known. She continued to write throughout her troubled years, and her first book (The Lagoon and Other Stories) won a prestigious literary prize, thus convincing her doctors not to carry out a planned lobotomy.
She returned to society, but not the one that had labelled her a misfit. She sought the support and company of other writers and set out single-mindedly and courageously to achieve her goal of being accepted as a writer. She wrote her first novel (Owls Do Cry) while staying in a rented hut in fellow author Frank Sargeson’s back garden, and then left New Zealand, not to return for seven years.
When [Owls Do Cry] was published, I was alarmed to find that it was believed to be autobiographical, with the characters actual members of my family, and myself the character Daphne upon whom a brain operation was performed... Daphne resembled me in many ways except in her frailty and absorption in fantasy to the exclusion of 'reality'; I have always been strong and practical, even commonplace in my everyday life
(Autobiography Volume 2)
She lived first in Ibiza and later in England where eventually she was assessed by specialists and liberated from the misguided diagnosis of schizophrenia. Acting on advice from her doctor (‘as I was obviously suffering from the effects of my long stay in hospital in New Zealand’), she produced the novel Faces in The Water: an exquisitely written fictional transformation of some of the torments she had experienced and the misfortunes she had witnessed during her stays in psychiatric wards.
From this point on Janet Frame had the confidence to resist a portrayal of herself as 'crazy' simply because she wanted to live a mainly solitary life, avoiding marriage and family and a 'real' job, so that she could preserve her 'own world' - her writing. She changed her surname to 'Clutha' (after a New Zealand river) and was issued with a new passport. She continued to write under the surname Frame and attempted to live as anonymously as possible under the pseudonym.
She worked prolifically and later returned to New Zealand as an established author internationally acclaimed for her unique literary style in which she pushed the boundaries of the traditions she drew from and grew out of.
She based herself in her home country for the rest of her life, although she travelled frequently to the United States and England.
In her lifetime she published eleven novels, five collections of stories, a volume of poetry and a children's book. As her fame grew and readers became curious to know more about the private life behind the famous ‘local girl made good’, her reluctance to make more than a few public appearances led to a perception of her as a recluse who was unable, rather than unwilling, to jump through the publicity hoops generally expected at the release of each new volume. Her relative absence from the lecterns and radio waves of the nation allowed conjecture and rumour to proliferate. Exasperation at some of the 'myths' she heard about herself, led her to attempt to ‘set the record straight’ in the celebrated autobiographical trilogy she wrote as she approached the age of sixty. The success of the autobiography led to even more fame, and when Jane Campion released her film adaptation, (An Angel at my Table), Janet Frame's story became a worldwide source of inspiration far beyond her usual international literary audience. In her home country she was already affectionately regarded as a cultural 'icon'.
Throughout her long career she received many honours at home and abroad. She was made a CBE in 1983 for services to literature, awarded an honorary doctorate of literature from Otago University in 1978, and one from Waikato University in 1992. She received New Zealand's highest civil honour in 1990 when she was made a Member of the Order of New Zealand. Janet Frame died in Dunedin in 2004.
NB: These journalistic obits are dotted with a few of the same old – and some new – exaggerations and errors of biographical fact that dogged Janet Frame in her lifetime. These texts in their turn have been mistaken as reputable sources of information and so the Janet Frame ‘story’ hardens into a legend.
NZ Herald (feature)
NZ Herald (obituary)
NZ Listener (paywall)
New York Times (paywall)
Tribute to Janet Frame from her NZ publisher
(Written by Michael Moynahan, Former Managing Director, Random House NZ)
Reproduced by kind permission.
There are two online biographies of Janet Frame that are particularly ridden with error and omission and that are non-neutral to the point of being toxic. The first is the Wikipedia article that has been hijacked to promote various theoretical agendas and the second is the biography commissioned by the NZ Ministry of Culture and Heritage and archived on the official government web site Te Ara. The Te Ara bio of Frame was written by an academic whose patronising misrepresentations of Frame’s life and work were detested by Janet Frame herself. Patrick Evans’s characteristically demeaning tone starts early in the article, with the subheading definition of Janet Frame as ‘Schoolteacher, writer’ when it is bizarre to suggest that Frame should be defined by being a ‘schoolteacher’. She successfully trained as a teacher but never applied for her final certification. She taught for most of her probationary year but she deliberately rejected the profession in favour of her literary aspirations. Also Frame is the only author to be called merely a ‘writer’ rather than being credited with each of the literary genres she mastered: poet, novelist, short-story writer, essayist. As a comparison, Te Ara’s Frank Sargeson biography defines the author as ‘Short-story writer, novelist, playwright’ and does not define him as a solicitor or as a law clerk even though he worked at those occupations for longer than Janet Frame ever taught in a classroom.
Janet Frame in her own words
Reliable and fascinating insights into Janet Frame’s life and work can be gained by reading a new collection of her own words: the anthology Janet Frame In Her Own Words (Penguin NZ, 2011) contains nearly 100 pages of quotes from 35 of the substantial interviews given by Janet Frame over her lifetime, as well as her complete published short non-fiction, a selection of ‘letters to the editor’ spanning fifty years (from the age of ten to the age of 60), drafts of many of Frame’s public speeches and reports, some previously unpublished memoirs, reviews, stories and poems and even a cartoon.
© Janet Frame Literary Trust 2013
Last revised: 14 April 2013
Challenging the Myths
This column has been provided as an educational resource in answer to frequently asked questions by NZ students.
‘From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth.’
Janet Frame is probably the most famous writer ever to have been produced by New Zealand. Within New Zealand, many myths persist about her, so much so that the myth-making itself has become an interesting topic for investigation.
A scholarly monograph has recently been published that touches on Janet Frame's ‘biographical legend’ and offers some interesting insights (Maria Wikse, 2006).
Myth #1: The Mad Writer
Some say that this myth has long been discredited. It's true that any academic who tried to argue for this should expect to attract scorn, but the myth still crops up in the wider community.
‘It is a measure of the awful fascination that attends mental illness in New Zealand that the question of her 'madness' still arises in discussion of her work and that Frame herself should still be at pains to separate herself personally from the dread word 'schizophrenia' which was used to imprison and punish her for the crime of not desiring what society deemed valuable’.
(Mark Williams, Leaving the Highway AUP, 1990).
Myth #2: The Mad Fat Writer
‘Until Jane Campion's film I was known as the mad writer. Now I'm the mad fat writer’
A consequence of the filmic Janet being played by well-built actors, was that Janet Frame herself (who was never overweight until her old age) became stereotyped in the popular imagination as the ‘fat girl in a cardie’ character portrayed on screen. This mistake, although trivial, should act as a caution against assuming that any other aspect of the film Janet can be taken as a reliable guide to any characteristic of the real Janet.
Myth #3: The Anti-social Recluse
‘While her humility was renowned, she was a most engaging personality with a wickedly funny sense of humour and a generosity of spirit.’
(New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark)
Visiting French author Nadine Ribault, who has translated some of Frame's fiction, was mystified when, on a visit to New Zealand, she encountered the popular belief that Janet Frame ‘keeps to herself’ and ‘no one meets her’. One of the clues Ribault had picked up from Frame's writing was that someone with her ‘wonderful sense of humour’ would be incapable of a total withdrawal from society.
(Quotes are from Ribault's essay in Colour of Distance VUP 2005).
Myth #4: Autism?
In a startling elaboration of the myth of Janet Frame as an anti-social recluse who was unable rather than just unwilling to hog the limelight, a new theory has emerged that she may have had ‘high functioning autism’.
As Frame scholar Simone Oettli commented: ‘It’s like accusing Agatha Christie of murder!’
The autism ‘diagnosis’ can only be taken seriously by those who are largely ignorant of Frame's life and work. The idea seems to have originated from the mistaken idea that the fictionalised movie portrayal of Janet Frame's life had a documentary resemblance to the real Janet Frame’s life. Those who knew Janet Frame in person, or have more than a passing acquaintance with her life and work, dismiss the theory as nonsense. The people who are diagnosing Janet Frame as autistic are diagnosing the Janet Frame Myth. The mythical ‘Janet’ is a caricature of the much more complicated real person.
The diagnostic wishful thinking doesn’t just require a blinkered and selective reading of Frame’s autobiography and fiction, it also depends on reductive and unhelpful stereotypes of the autistic spectrum itself.