The New Zealand author Janet Paterson Frame, ONZ, CBE (August 28, 1924 - January 29, 2004) published eleven novels in her lifetime, together with three collections of short stories, a book of poetry, an edition of juvenile fiction, and three volumes of autobiography. A twelfth novel and a second volume of poetry have appeared posthumously.
Frame, well-known for her literary output as well as her personal history, narrowly escaped leucotomy just at the time her first book won a national literary prize. Partly as a result of her dramatic past, Frame, aptly described by scholar Simone Oettli as an artist who paradoxically wanted simultaneous fame and anonymity, has become the focus of a wide range of biographical myths posited by literary critics and the general public alike. Although Frame's work — which eschewed the dominant New Zealand literary realism of the time, combining prose, poetry, modernist and postmodernist elements with a somewhat magical realist style — was met with a decidedly mixed critical and public reception, her status as a respected novelist of international repute, coupled with her remarkable life-story, immortalised in her autobiographies and in director Jane Campion's film-adaptation of the texts, have earned her a place in twentieth-century literary history.
Born in Dunedin, on the east coast of New Zealand's South Island, Frame entered the world as the third of five children born to George, a railway worker, and to Lottie (née Godfrey), a former housemaid to the family of writer Katherine Mansfield. Dr Emily Hancock Siedeberg, New Zealand's first female medical graduate, delivered Frame at St. Helen's Hospital in 1927. The future author 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 further featured in her subsequent fiction). As described in detail in her autobiographies, Frame's childhood featured the deaths of two of her sisters, Myrtle and Isabel, who drowned in separate incidents at a young age, and the epileptic seizures suffered by her brother George (referred to as "Geordie" and "Bruddie").
In 1943 Frame began training as a teacher at the Dunedin College of Education, while at the same time auditing courses in English, French and psychology at the adjacent University of Otago. Shortly after her arrival at university, Frame, in the throes of an emotional crisis, began regular therapy-sessions with junior lecturer John Money, to whom she developed a strong attachment, and whose later work as a sexologist specialising in gender reassignment remains controversial.
While practising teaching in Dunedin in 1947, Frame dramatically abandoned her classroom during a scheduled visit from a school-inspector. Shortly thereafter the psychiatric ward of the local Dunedin hospital admitted her as a patient. Following this brief internment, Frame, unwilling to return home to her family, where tensions between her father and brother had become increasingly unbearable for the would-be-author, transferred to Seacliff Mental Hospital near Karitane north of Dunedin, where doctors diagnosed her as suffering from schizophrenia. Over the course of the next eight years, Frame repeatedly readmitted herself to a number of psychiatric hospitals in New Zealand, including Avondale and Sunnyside. The institutions treated her with insulin and, according to her own account, administered over two hundred rounds of electroconvulsive therapy.
In 1951, while Frame remained interned in psychiatric hospital, New Zealand's Caxton Press published her first book, a slim volume of short stories titled The Lagoon and Other Stories. The work won the Hubert Church Memorial Award, at that time one of the nation's most prestigious literary prizes, and resulted in the cancellation of her scheduled lobotomy. Four years later, in 1955, following her final discharge from psychiatric hospital, Frame, at the time staying with her sister's family in the Auckland suburb of Northcote, met the New Zealand writer Frank Sargeson. From April 1955 to July 1956 Frame lived and worked in an old army hut in the garden of Sargeson's home in Takapuna, producing her first full-length novel, which the publishers — rejecting the author's original title, Talk of Treasure — released as Owls Do Cry (Pegasus, 1957).
Frame left New Zealand in 1956, living and working for the following seven years in Europe, primarily based in London, with sojourns in Ibiza and Andorra. While abroad, Frame — still struggling with anxiety and depression — admitted herself to the Maudsley Hospital in London, where American-trained psychiatrist Alan Miller, who studied under Money at Johns Hopkins University, proposed that she had never suffered from schizophrenia. She would subsequently brandish a letter from him certifying this opinion to critics claiming madness as a source of her genius. In an effort to alleviate the ill-effects of her years spent in and out of psychiatric hospital, Frame then began regular sessions with the psychoanalyst R.H. Cawley, who encouraged her to continue to pursue her writing, and to whom she would eventually dedicate seven of her novels.
Frame eventually returned to New Zealand in 1963 and accepted the Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago in 1965. In subsequent years, the author lived in several different parts of New Zealand's North Island, including Auckland, Taranaki, Wanganui, the Horowhenua, Palmerston North, Waiheke, Stratford, Browns Bay and Levin. In addition to these numerous, and somewhat infamous shifts of residence,
Frame also travelled a great deal, principally to the United States, where she received offers of residencies at the artists' colonies MacDowell and Yaddo. Partly as a result of these extended stays abroad, several Americans became some of Frame's closest friends, including the painter Theophilus Brown, of whom she would he say, he was \"the chief experience of my life\", and his long-time partner Paul John Wonner, along with the novelists May Sarton, John Marquand, Jr. and Alan Lelchuck. In addition, Frame's one-time teacher/therapist and longtime friend John Money lived and worked in North America from 1947 onwards, and Frame frequently used his home in Baltimore as a base.
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 trace the course of her life leading up to her return to New Zealand in 1963. Director Jane Campion and screenwriter Laura Jones adapted the trilogy into the 1990 film An Angel at my Table, wherein a trio of actresses, (Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh and Karen Fergusson) portray the author at various ages. As a result of the autobiographies, which sold more than any of the author's previous publications, and, even more so, Campion's widely successful film-adaptation of the texts, a new generation of readers encountered the author and her work, pushing Frame increasingly into the public eye.
Despite her growing celebrity, Frame generally avoided the limelight, although some commentators have occasionally over-stated her drive for anonymity and seclusion. In fact, Frame sustained an extended network of friends and made occasional appearances at literary festivals in New Zealand, Canada and the United States.
Frame's memoirs, as the author, her biographer, and her publishers and critics have noted, aimed to \"set the record straight\" regarding her past and, in particular, regarding her mental status. Indeed, repeated critical and public speculation has often focussed on the subject of Frame's mental health, most recently with rehabilitation physician Sarah Abrahamson's suggestion that the author may have been on what is commonly referred to as the autistic spectrum. Although some contested Abrahamson's editorial, most vehemently Frame's niece and current literary executor Pamela Gordon, who herself has a daughter with autism, both the New Zealand Medical Journal and the author defended the work.
1983 saw Frame become a Commander of the Order of British Empire (CBE) for services to literature, and in 1990 she was made a member of the Order of New Zealand, the country's highest civil honour. 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 her native New Zealand.
Rumours occasionally circulated portraying Frame as a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature, most notably in 1998, when some commentators reported her as the frontrunner after a journalist spotted her name at the top of a list subsequently revealed to have been in alphabetical order, and again five years later, in 2003, when Asa Bechman, the influential chief literary critic at the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, wrongly predicted that the author would win the prestigious prize.
In 2000, the popular historian Michael King published his authorised biography of Frame, Wrestling with the Angel, simultaneously released in New Zealand and North America, with British and Australian editions appearing in subsequent years. King's exhaustive work attracted equal measures of praise and criticism; some questioned the extent to which Frame guided the hand of her biographer, with one critic likening King's role to that of a ventriloquist's dummy, while others felt that he had failed to come to terms with the complexity and subtlety of his subject. King defended his project and maintained that future biographies on Frame would eventually fill in the gaps left by his own work.
Janet Frame died in Dunedin in January 2004, aged 79, from acute myeloid leukaemia, shortly after becoming one of the inaugural recipients of New Zealand's newly-minted "Icon" and Prime Minister's awards for the arts. Since her death, several posthumous works have been released, including a volume of poetry entitled The Goose Bath, which won New Zealand's 2007 Montana Book Award for poetry, generating some controversy among New Zealand's literati, and a previously unpublished novel, Towards Another Summer, largely based on a weekend Frame spent with British journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse and his family. On June 2, 2008, a previously unpublished short story by Frame, A Night at the Opera, appeared without advance notice in The New Yorker, creating a stir within the literary community. Another previously unpublished short story, Gorse Is Not People, appeared in the September 1, 2008 edition of The New Yorker. Both stories take place in a mental hospital, and are believed to have been written by Frame in 1954.