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Janet Frame

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.

Biographical overview

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.

Literary works


  • 1957 Owls Do Cry. Christchurch: Pegasus Press.
  • 1961 Faces in the Water. Christchurch: Pegasus Press; New York: Braziller.
  • 1962 The Edge of the Alphabet. Christchurch: Pegasus Press.
  • 1963 Scented Gardens for the Blind. London: WH Allen.
  • 1965 The Adaptable Man. London: WH Allen.
  • 1966 A State of Siege. New York: Braziller.
  • 1968 The Rainbirds. London: WH Allen. (Published in the US with Frame's preferred original title, Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room. New York: Braziller, 1969)
  • 1970 Intensive Care. New York: Braziller.
  • 1972 Daughter Buffalo. New York: Braziller.
  • 1979 Living in the Maniototo. New York: Braziller.
  • 1989 The Carpathians. New York: Braziller.
  • 2007 Towards Another Summer. Auckland: Vintage ISBN 9781869418687 (Posthumously published).

Short stories

  • 1951 The Lagoon and Other Stories. Christchurch: Caxton Press. (Mistakenly dated on first edition as 1952)
  • 1963. The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches/Snowman Snowman: Fables and Fantasies. New York: Braziller (Edited selection published in the Commonwealth edition The Reservoir and Other Stories London: W.H. Allen, 1966).
  • 1983. You Are Now Entering the Human Heart. Wellington: Victoria University Press.

Children's fiction

  • 1969. Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun. (With illustrations by Robin Jacques.) New York: Braziller (Reissued posthumously in 2005 by Random House, New Zealand, with illustrations by David Elliot).


  • 1967. The Pocket Mirror. New York: Braziller.
  • 2006. The Goose Bath. Auckland: Random House/Vintage (Posthumously published); (Released in the UK as a collected edition along with selections from The Pocket Mirror under the title Storms Will Tell: Selected Poems. Bloodaxe Books, 2008)


  • 1982. To the Is-Land (Autobiography 1). New York: Braziller.
  • 1984. An Angel at My Table (Autobiography 2). New York: Braziller.
  • 1984. The Envoy From Mirror City (Autobiography 3). Auckland: Century Hutchinson.
  • 1989. An Autobiography (Collected edition). Auckland: Century Hutchinson (Posthumously reprinted under the title An Angel at My Table, London: Virago, 2008).

Separately published stories and poems

  • 1946. "University Entrance" in New Zealand Listener, 22 March 1946.
  • 1947. "Alison Hendry" in Landfall 2, June 1947. (Published under the penname "Jan Godfrey"; reprinted in The Lagoon and Other Stories under the title "Jan Godfrey".)
  • 1954. "The Waitress" in New Zealand Listener, 9 July 1954
  • 1954. "The Liftman" in New Zealand Listener, 13 August 1954
  • 1954. "On Paying the Third Installment" in New Zealand Listener, 10 September 1954
  • 1954. "Lolly Legs" in New Zealand Listener, 15 October 1954
  • 1954. "Trio Concert" in New Zealand Listener, 29 October 1954.
  • 1954. "Timothy" in New Zealand Listener, 26 November 1954
  • 1955. "The Transformation" in New Zealand Listener, 28 January 1955
  • 1956. "The Ferry" in New Zealand Listener, 13 July 1956.
  • 1956. "Waiting for Daylight" in Landfall (NZ) 10
  • 1956. "I Got Shoes" in New Zealand Listener, 2 November 1956.
  • 1957. "Face Downwards in the Grass" in Mate (NZ) 1
  • 1957. "The Dead" in Landfall (NZ) 11
  • 1957. "The Wind Brother" in School Journal (NZ) 51.1
  • 1958. "The Friday Night World" in School Journal (NZ) 52.1
  • 1962. "Prizes" in The New Yorker 10 March 1962
  • 1962. "The Red-Currant Bush, the Black-Currant Bush, the Gooseberry Bush, the African Thorn Hedge, and the Garden Gate Who Was Once the Head of an Iron Bed" in Mademoiselle April 1962
  • 1963. "The Reservoir" in The New Yorker 12 January 1963 (reprinted in The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches)
  • 1963. "The Chosen Image" in Vogue, July 1963
  • 1964. "The Joiner" in Landfall (NZ) 18
  • 1957. "The Road to Takapuna" in Mate (NZ) 12
  • 1964. "Scott's Horse" in Landfall (NZ) 18
  • 1964. "The Senator Had Plans" in Landfall (NZ) 18
  • 1965. "The Bath" in Landfall (NZ) 19 (Reprinted in You Are Now Entering the Human Heart)
  • 1966. "A Boy's Will" in Landfall (NZ) 20
  • 1966. "White Turnips: A Timely Monologue" in New Zealand Monthly Review May 1966
  • 1966. "In Alco Hall" in Harper's Bazaar, November 1966
  • 1968. "In Mexico City" in New Zealand Listener, 20 December 1968
  • 1969. "You Are Now Entering the Human Heart" in The New Yorker 29 March 1969 (Reprinted in You Are Now Entering the Human Heart)
  • 1969. "The Birds of the Air" in Harper's Bazaar, June 1969
  • 1969. "Jet Flight" in New Zealand Listener, 8 August 1969
  • 1969. "The Words" in Mademoiselle October 1969
  • 1970. "Winter Garden" in The New Yorker 31 January 1970
  • 1974. "They Never Looked Back" in New Zealand Listener, 23 March 1974
  • 1975. "The Painter" in New Zealand Listener, 6 September 1975
  • 1976. "Rain on the Roof" in The Journal (NZ), April 1976 (Previously published in The Pocket Mirror)
  • 1979. "Insulation" in New Zealand Listener, 17 March 1979
  • 1979. "Two Widowers" in New Zealand Listener, 9 June 1979
  • 2004. "Three Poems by Janet Frame" in New Zealand Listener, 28 August-3 September 2004 (Posthumously published) view online
  • 2008. "A Night at the Opera" in The New Yorker, 2 June 2008 (Posthumously published) view online
  • 2008. "Gorse Is Not People" in The New Yorker, 1 September 2008 (Posthumously published) view online

Articles, reviews, essays and letters

  • 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 1984

Awards and honours

  • 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)

See also



  • 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.
  • 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 links

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