Janet Frame

Janet Frame

Janet Frame

Edge of the Alphabet

“The sun is all love and murder, judgement, the perpetual raid of conscience, paratrooping light which opens like a snow-blossom in the downward drift of death. Wherever I turn – the golden cymbals of judgement, the summoning of the torturers of light.”
Scented Gardens for the Blind

Mixing and revolving words with the skill of a warrior handling a taiaha, novelist Janet Frame made a pre-eminent edge contribution to international literature. She came from the peripheries of art and society, yet her fictional explorations have always been forays into the interior. For Frame her art and imagining were the conjuring of experience, madness, dreams, identity and memory, into a coiled reality. The agenda for her prose, wrestling with the dual/jewel (to borrow a typical Frame word-play) nature of ‘truth’ entangled in the medium of its expression, is laid out the famous opening lines of To the Is-land:

“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.”

She was twice short-listed for the Nobel Prize and has been compared to Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf. “One of the great writers of our time” (San Francisco Chronicle). “Ms. Frame writes with a beauty that confers a morbid grandeur, that makes poetry of the particular, the private, the enclosed.” The New York Times on Reservoir: Stories and Sketches. “Few novelists since Joyce,” writes William Peden in the Saturday Review, “have so successfully portrayed the world of dreams and illusions.”

Her international reputation rests on an original, “edge of the alphabet” use of language. Australian Nobel Laureate Patrick White on Frame’s “new minded” way with words wrote in a letter to her publisher that “Frame’s writing makes me feel I have always been a couple of steps out from where I want to get in my own writing.” Her prose is torrential, electric, soaring on a thermal from an Oamaru north westerly or tossed about in the stormy roaring forties: allusive, looking for symbols, currents, myth, metaphor:

Wayward as dust when the wind blows around corners
into blind eyes; petrifying as stone
that sinks the heart of thistledown.
Grave as gravity denied
supremacy in outer space,
tall metaphor, explain me,
describe my shape.
(The Pocket Mirror)

Wonder Currency

Born in Dunedin in 1924, the third of five children, Frame grew up in an eccentric railway family in the small towns of Otag Province. Her Oamaru childhood was marred by poverty, illness and tragedy (two of her sisters drowned in separate incidents). It was nonetheless remarkable for a close, imaginatively intense home-life where “words were revered as the instruments of magic.” They didn’t have revolving clothes lines and endured the tyranny of the second hand, but the Frames had a life rich in what Janet in Owls Do Cry described as “wonder currency”. From the outset her grasp of her imagination is edge original. Her sense of place is sure, stemming from a desire to wrest her own imagination from sale. A Bastion Point-style occupation of the mindscape with Keats and other imported idols as her adversaries:

“I wanted an imagination that would inhabit a world of fact, descend like a shining light upon the ordinary life of Eden Street and not force me to exist in an “elsewhere”. I wanted the light to shine upon the pigeons of Glen Street, the plum trees in our garden, the two japonica bushes (one red, one yellow), our pine plantations and gully, our summerhouse, our lives and our home, the world of Oamaru, the kingdom by the sea. I refused to accept that if I were to fulfill my ambition to be a poet, I should spend my imaginative life among the nightingales instead of among the waxeyes and the fantails.”

As sure as she was of the endemic features of her southern home she was acutely conscious of the culture’s potential for mental fascism. A consistent theme in Frame’s plots are characters struggling against the constrictions of a society that neglects its mind. In Owls Do Cry the material suck of the undertow is an oppressive metaphor for her country’s fear of the intangible, the imaginative:

“… the Woollen Mills, the chocolate factory, the butter factory, the flour mill — all meaning prosperity and wealth and a fat-filled land; and lastly a photograph of the foreshore with its long sweep of furious and hungry water … where you cannot bathe without fear of the undertow, and you bathe carefully, as you live, between the flags.”

Writing as Saviour

The first volume of her autobiography tells the trauma of growing up in Oamaru: painfully shy, burdened by the stigma of poverty and of an unusual appearance. She was an outsider, a girl incomplete who disliked puzzles, particularly jigsaws, feeling left “always with a spare piece of sea or sky or grass besides an already completed sea, sky, or lawn .” Frame’s literary renown is set against an enduring public fascination with the life of the author with the distinctive thick flame-red hair; a fascination revolving almost obsessively around her reclusive nature and time spent in psychiatric institutions after being misdiagnosed with schizophrenia as a young woman. While in her twenties, over a period of more than eight years she endured over 200 electric shock treatments. She was infamously saved from a lobotomy in 1951 when her debut collection of stories, The Lagoon, won the Hubert Church Memorial Award. A friend, psychologist Dr John Money who was her lecturer at Otago University teacher’s college from 1943-44, had collected the stories while Frame was hospitalised. As Frame recollected frequently since, “my writing saved me.”

She moved to Takapuna, Auckland, where she was taken under the wing of New Zealand literary mentor Frank Sargeson. She wrote her first novel, Owls Do Cry, in Sargeson’s shed, drawing heavily on her experience of family tragedy and her time in mental hospitals. The book was published internationally to acclaim. The author was cast as an antipodean madwoman in a cabin, praised for her original style and insight into the world of the mentally disturbed. In 1956, with Sargeson’s encouragement she traveled abroad, on a State Literary Fund grant, visiting Ibiza and Andorra before journeying to England. Hers was a wing-spreading overseas exile more driven than most: “I knew, and others knew, that leaving the country was my last hope to avoid life-long confinement in a hospital.” In London Frame was excused from her place at “that terrible feast” that is schizophrenia when, in 1958, psychiatrists at the Maudsley Clinic concluded that she had been misdiagnosed. She was instead recognised as someone who was shy, preferred being alone, and who was “just different” to most people (a situation exacerbated no doubt by spending most of her twenties socially dislocated in mental institutions). Frame was empowered, (she would wryly write later, “for your own good is a persuasive argument that will eventually make a man agree to his own destruction”). Before her now was what she called the “Mirror City”, her playhouse of the imagination.

Her time in London was to be highly productive and when she returned to NZ in 1963 she had completed Faces in the Water, Scented Gardens for the Blind and The Edge of the Alphabet. She had publishers on both sides of the Atlantic and was developing an international critical reputation. The New York Times called Scented Gardens “Amazing…the most remarkable book I’ve read in a long time. A most overwhelming and brilliant tour de force.” Frame first visited the United States in 1964, to see her old friend John Money, now an eminent and controversial sexologist, at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. He held numerous residencies in artists’ and writers’ colonies in the US in the late 60s and early 70s, returning periodically to Dunedin. Back in the colonies Frame associated with other writers and artists, including Eudora Welty, May Sarton, Philip Roth, Charles Neider and the painter and musician William Theophilus Brown. She engaged in a doomed (he was “one of the boys”) but permissive and revelatory relationship with Brown, which she would later describe as “the chief experience of my life”. She lived an itinerant lifestyle for some years, in non-descript dwellings and suburbs from Auckland to Wanganui, Horowhenua and Rangitikei. A friend described this as “moving, loving, loathing, leaving.” Finally, in 1997, she settled in Dunedin where she lived until her death from leukaemia in 2004. Famously reclusive, Frame was reticent about interviews and spurned awards ceremonies. In 1972 she changed her name to Clutha to preserve her privacy while continuing to write under her own name.

Throughout her career Frame strived to deflect attention from herself to her writing. Yet hers was a life that demanded attention, triumphant and tragic like Mansfield, Keats, Dickinson, Van Gogh’s. It had the mysterious archetypal quality of a camp-fire folk-tale.

With Frame’s consent Michael King spliced together the frames of her life in his exhaustively researched biography Wrestling With The Angel – A Life Of Janet Frame (a Montana New Zealand Book of the Year in 2001). King contrasts the myth of the tragic isolated genius/bard of bedlam, revealing intimate and intense friendships and a dry sense of humour. After undergoing breast surgery, Frame stated that she would now be able to “wear topless dresses with equanimity”. While at MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire in the late 60s, Frame was part of a bohemian coterie (“the Baby Group”) and would compose “salty” limericks about her fellow inhabitants:

“The pecker of Harrison Kinney/ was so excessively skinny/ that like a Greek statue/ his balls stared back at you/ with little eyes, nose and chinny.”

Frame joked in an interview that during stays at the writers’ colonies she was surrounded for the first time by other people who read people. “I was being read too. We would sit round at lunch, everyone was too sort of brilliantly sensitive.”

Turning Away From the Main View

Frame was as complex a creature as any, (“Add to the characters [of a person] all the events, thoughts, feelings, and there is a mass of time, now a sticky mess, now a jewel bigger than the plants and the stars”) but her life remains a furled, mythical one. The iconic shot of the young Frame walking down a deserted New Zealand road in Jane Campion’s acclaimed film adaptation of An Angel at My Table captures the electric charge (“Electricity, the peril the wind sings to in the wires on a gray day”). The clouds loom above, the long shadows of the severe southern sun cast across her, but contained within the pale gumboot-wearing girl, the sun illuminating the red-haired afro like a light bulb, is a palpable energy. The figure eventually dominates the frame and background, looking intently to a self-generated horizon.

“…out of a desire to be myself, not to follow the ever-dominant personalities around me, I had formed the habit of focusing in places not glanced at by others, of deliberately turning away from the main view…My memory of myself contains now myself looking outward and myself looking within from without, developing the view that others might have of me.”
(To The Is-land)

Frame dared to be different in a staid 1950s New Zealand society, which was a particularly difficult choice for a woman writer. It was a society whose protective institutions had brutalised and nearly destroyed her, that had deemed her crazy.

“They meant abnormal. Divisions of the kind were fashionable at that time, and it was so easy to stifle one’s need to help by deciding that help could neither be accepted nor understood. I have seen a quick-drying paint advertised lately in the shops. It is most convenient; it dries immediately it is brushed upon the wall. It is like habit, except that habit sets even more quickly upon the mind, and one is grateful for this convenience, the way it removes the need for laborious action or thought. And so we have grouped the deaf, dumb, blind, crippled, mentally ill, in one mass in order to “deal with” them, for we must “deal with” these vast surfaces of strangeness which demand all our lives a protective varnish of sympathy.”
(Scented Gardens for the Blind)

It might be fallacious to read the life of the author as the life of the work. But the life chronicled in her writing has the same energy emanating, from Frame’s urgent explorations into the possibility that writing could be turned into life; that the imagination could verbally compose itself into language. Or the life into writing. An irony not lost on Frame is that it took the publication of her three-part autobiography, (followed by Campion’s film adaptation in 1990), to see her readership swell in New Zealand. Michael Holroyd of The Sunday Times (UK) acclaimed it as “one of the greatest autobiographies written this century.” We are given “the transformation of ordinary facts and ideas into a shining palace of mirrors”

“Where in my early years time had been horizontal, progressive, day after day, year after year, with memories being a true personal history known by dates and specific years, or vertical, with events stacked one upon the other, “sacks on the mill and more on still”, the adolescent time now became a whirlpool, and so the memories do not arrange themselves to be observed and written about, they whirl, propelled by a force beneath, with different memories rising to the surface at different times, and thus denying the existence of a ‘pure’ autobiography and confirming, for each moment, a separate story accumulating to a million stories, all different and with some memories forever staying beneath the surface. I sit here at my desk, peering into the depths of the dance, for the movement is dance with its own pattern, neither good nor bad, but individual in its own right–a dance of dust or sunbeams or bacteria or notes of sound or colours or liquids, or ideas that the writer, trying to write an autobiography, clings to in one moment only.”
(To The Is-Land)

Living in the Elsewhere

In Frame’s fiction it is the intensity of experience conveyed that is compelling. Sometimes, reading the prose, the impression is an intense focus on the world and its details, its overwhelming signification, “my father eating his tea, the Oamaru Mail propped up against the milk jug, the low chair is striped like a lizard . I like to see life with its teeth out.” Or as a narrator comments, “an abundance of life which shocks and frightens by its untidiness, its lack of boundaries”. Vincent O’Sullivan remarks, “the commonplace is stroked until its coat shines…there is perhaps no other writer apart from Kafka who can force the reader into a corner, or so brilliantly compel him to share an art which is incomparably larger than neurosis, yet inseparable from it.” Frame’s response was circumspect, for years she bristled at the suggestion her works were even novels: “My books are really just explorations…in the early days I did try to insist that they be called that rather than novels.”

Another writer that bears comparison is Thomas Pynchon (also a notorious recluse) in his unswerving obsession with the onion-peeling search for the centre of meaning amongst the layers of language and the world. As Frame’s fiction developed her works became increasingly concerned with language as a problematic constructor of experience, pushing the letters on the typewriter keyboard towards their logical conclusion. The slippage between experience, thought and expression: “The sea crashes against the alphabet, the letters crack and split like icing when the soft sweetness has worn away and only the brittle water-tasting bones remain.” Her work is significant for its subversion of literary norms and its playfully serious experimentation with accepted codes of language, a gesturing at reality through the manipulation of words. Tara Hawes in ‘The self as other/othering the self (Deep South v.1, n.1, 1995) writes that Frame’s experiments in the waste disposal of language mark her as an author out of her time:

“Her stories and novels experimented with metafiction way before it became a buzzword for postmodern and postcolonial literary critics, for example, The Edge of the Alphabet, published in 1962 has a metafictional narrator, Thora Pattern. Frame actually had to lessen Thora’s prominence in the novel to please her publishers. Several of her later novels, including her last, The Carpathians (1988), play even more unconventional narrative games, showing Frame to be not only ahead of her time, but a literary trendsetter.”

Notoriously “difficult” to read, Frame has been aptly compared to the mythical Cassandra: “like all visionaries she is revered and avoided” (Lauris Edmond). With the gift for insight Frame was able to convey subtle nuances of experience, particularly for those people on the margin. Her range of characters living in “the elsewhere” include the insane, eccentrics, murderers, oddities, epileptics, the elderly, artists, scientists, exiles and children. Individuals (for her characters are atomised; strong relationships are unusual) who have in common an ability to conjure up imaginative worlds in opposition to the ‘normal’ world; damaged, ordinary people attempting to free themselves from the constrictions of society.

Her arrangement of their worlds is original, not in any way derivative, whether it be plotting their interior mindscapes or the changed exterior world. Sets range from South Seas suburban neurosis (a recurring theme), a post-WWIII nuclear society ruled by technocrats (Intensive Care); ye-olde village in England adapting (more dual wordplay) to the twentieth century where a handsome, quintessentially modern young man commits murder (An Adaptable Man); an elderly woman alone in State of Siege who retires to an idealised magical, but ultimately flawed, world free of social responsibility. In The Carpithians a wealthy New Yorker journeys to the edge to small-town Aotearoa in search of the “gravity star” that will destroy the concepts of space and distance and obliterate thought. In Living in the Maniototo a New Zealand woman makes the reverse journey, connected through a tremulous fault-line to the centre, Berkeley, San Francisco.

Frame’s stories exist in the place between the Aotearoa summer blooming and the always present duality of decay, the threat and promise in the long white cloud: “the fluffy asters in every pastel shade were curling and browning at the ends of their petals; the cream banksia roses of the summerhouse were already shrivelled and fallen. We lay on the parched front lawn, looking up at the clouds, interpreting their shapes, asking, What do you see? What do you see?” What Frame sees and shapes is communicated through unique perspectives: two sheep in conversation on the way to the slaughterhouse; a man who cuts off his body to free his mind; a snail, “bathed in slime, fretting at his journey to the end of the world”; a television becomes death: “… just look at the sky, blurred and coming down on us like the telly with the Horizontal Hold broken… . But the sky then in its frame of light slipped from the Horizontal Hold. The mirrors and the world blurred. Darkness came.” In Scented Gardens a study of a family driven nuclear is told from the alternating perspective of its three members – the daughter who has ceased to speak, the mother who has turned herself blind and the father who has retreated into his genealogy. In manifold constructions the obsession is with making ‘sense’ through imagination and language. Frame has commented that her favorite work is in a fable she wrote entitled Bird, Hawk, Bogie. In it, the bird (inspiration and imagination) is eaten by a strong hawk (materialism), which in turn is eaten by the bogie (repressed imagination and individualism). This triangular plot provides the recurrent symbolism for much of her work.

Often insights into character are coupled with dark humour and satire. The comic mixed with the serious, the commonplace with the bizarre. In Scented Gardens a young girl Erlene, has ceased to speak:

“She was not going to speak to anyone. She could not speak if she wanted to, because every time she opened her mouth to say something, her voice, in hiding, reminded her that there was nothing to say, and no words to say it. People usually went on talking all their lives, until just before their death, when it was said they tried to cram everything in at once, confessing. And then no one understood them. They dreamed aloud in a topped and tailed language while relations and friends leaned over them, trying to snatch their share of words that with the approach of death and silence had suddenly gone up in price.”

Position of the Exile

Hawes writes that Frame’s perspective is typically that of “the other”, a position learned from childhood and enforced stylistically: “her characters are precariously balanced on the borders between (linguistic and social) conformity and wholesale abandonment to the dissolution of meaning and selfhood.” For Frame’s characters, alienation becomes the badge of truth and authenticity (this is also a criticism that has been levelled at her work). Like Erlene, they are fringe dwellers struggling with ill communication.

Frame takes on the position of the exile even when in her homeland. When she submitted articles to London Magazine as a young writer she claimed to be of “Pacific Island origin”; later when she went to London, she claimed to be writing from the point of view of “a West Indian arrival” By her later novels, as Kim Worthington writes, “the writer is no longer portrayed as an alienated isolate unable to communicate, but rather as one with the capacity to ‘impersonate’ a variety of subject positions and able to access the ‘manifold’ of cultural and personal memory.” Frame’s response in a world of mirrors and replicas is to suggest that the imitations of art may prove to be the closest we come to what is real and true.

This point of difference was never lost on overseas’ critics – geographically and culturally, New Zealand epitomised otherness to the dominant American and British literary scene. Yet Frame has used distance and isolation to her work’s advantage by making “the other” both its subject and intended audience.

“On the rim of the farthest circle from the group was my normal place.”
(To the Is-Land)

Frame held numerous overseas fellowships – in New York, New Hampshire, and Menton, France. She received Italian (1993) and Chilean (1996) awards. She was an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and in 2003 was short-listed for the Nobel Prize for a second time. The hours and years spent in the factories, the streets, the cathedrals of the imagination (“not on a shopping expedition” as Frame put it when describing the writer’s lot) resulted in a corpus of work that stands as a singular and unique literary voice. The Age’s Stephanie Dowrick described Frame as one of “the two great 20th-century writers in English from our region, and among the top dozen writers in English from any country.” Mark Goulden, for 36 years chairman of British publishing house W.H. Allen, wrote;

“I have met in my lifetime only three persons whom I regarded as geniuses.” Dylan Thomas was one, another was “a relatively unknown author called Janet Frame”.

Melodious Wild Word Music

Janet Frame’s international success was matched domestically where the distinctions granted her testify to her place as a literary icon (Member, Order of NZ; CBE; honorary doctorate in English Literature and Burns Fellow, Otago University; Turnovsky Prize for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts; honorary Vice-President, NZ Women Writers’ Society). Michael King wrote: “I think she does and will continue to rank with Katherine Mansfield as our most important writer.” In 2003 Frame was awarded one of the inaugural Arts Foundation Icon Awards. Her novels include Owls Do Cry, The Adaptable Man, The Carpathians, Daughter Buffalo, Faces in the Water, Living in the Maniototo, Scented Gardens for the Blind, as well as numerous children’s works, essays and the acclaimed three part autobiography, To the Is-land, An Angel at my Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City.

Janet Frame: “just different” as English psychiatrists assessed her with splitting-the-totara economy. Reading her sentences is something akin to Joseph Banks awakening and hearing the deafening dawn chorus for the first time in Queen Charlotte Sound during Cook’s first voyage of down under discovery:

“They seemed to strain their throats with emulation, and made, perhaps, the most melodious wild music I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells, but with the most tunable silver imaginable, to which, may be, the distance was no small addition.”

Frame wrote of dawn awakenings both natural and human: from the profound peal of the bellbird to the irritating man-made sound of suburban New Zealand’s weekend domestics: “motor-mowing, hammering and chainsawing summers”. In our literature she has taken a Flymo to the dictionary and reconfigured the wor(l)d. Frame’s wild word music, from the edge of literature and the world, “to which distance was no small addition”, configures experience as a passenger of language, the keyboard her conduit to the Third Place:

“She stared at the heap of letters. They looked faded, used, yet the morning sun, striking them, made them sparkle and shine, reflecting, perhaps, an old thought lying between letters. Mattina wondered why she felt afraid to touch them, to brush them into a pan and drop them in the trash. After all, they were only a pile of old letters of old alphabets with a sprinkling of full stops and commas, seedlike with tiny sprouts not of life but of the final decay of the old language that had lasted well, magnificently, but were now like the old gods and goddesses who no longer could change or accept new growth and must perish to feed the birth of the new.”
(The Carpathians)


Books by Janet Frame:

The Lagoon (1951) short stories
Owls Do Cry (1957) novel
Faces in the Water (1962) novel
The Edge of the Alphabet (1963) novel
Scented Gardens for the Blind (1963) novel
Snowman Snowman: Fables and Fantasies (1963) short stories
The Adaptable Man (1965) novel
A State of Siege (1966) novel
The Reservoir and other stories (1966) short stories
The Pocket Mirror (1967) poetry
The Rainbirds (1968) novel (also published as Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room)
Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun (1969) children’s book
Intensive Care (1970) novel
Daughter Buffalo (1972) novel
Living in the Maniototo (1979) novel
To The Is-Land (1982) autobiography
You Are Now Entering the Human Heart (1983) short stories
An Angel at My Table (1984) autobiography
The Envoy from Mirror City (1985) autobiography
The Carpathians (1988) novel


Authorised biography: King, Michael. Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame. Auckland: Penguin, 2000.

Comprehensive University of Auckland bibliography of books and articles on and by Janet Frame:

Worthington, Kim. “Janet Frame.” New Zealand Book Council Te Kaunihera Pukapuka o Aotearoa.
[Accessed January 2004]

Liukkonen, Petri. “Janet Frame (1924-2004).” Pegasos.
[Accessed January 2004]

Hawes, Tara. “The Self as Other/Othering the Self.” Deep South v.1, n.1, (February 1995). http://www.otago.ac.nz/DeepSouth/vol1no1/hawes1.html
[Accessed January 2004]

McNaughton, Howard. “Fraying the Edge of an Alphabet.” SPAN Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, Number 36 (1993). http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/litserv/SPAN/36/McNaughton.html
[Accessed January 2004]

Carey, Diane. “Janet Frame and The Tempest.” Journal of New Zealand Literature.
[Accessed January 2004]

“Creative Quotations from Janet Frame.” Creative Quotations.com http://www.creativequotations.com/one/1994.htm
[Accessed January 2004]


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