Janet Frame 1924-
New Zealand novelist, autobiographer, short story writer, poet, and essayist.
One of New Zealand's best-known contemporary fiction writers, Frame is the author of numerous novels and stories that demonstrate a strong autobiographical influence. Her fiction is marked by a concern with death, poverty, and madness—matters with which Frame became familiar while growing up during the Great Depression, and later when she spent several years in a mental institution after being erroneously diagnosed as schizophrenic. In addition, Frame's works play with language, using anagrams, rhymes, puns, disrupted syntax, and other word games in order to highlight ways in which people communicate—or fail to do so.
Frame was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1924. As a child she began writing in an effort to liberate herself from what she has described "a background of poverty, drunkeness, attempted murder, and near-madness." During the Depression, her large family eked out a living in a rural region and endured adversity: two of her sisters drowned in separate incidents, and her younger brother suffered many epileptic seizures. Although she wanted to be a writer, Frame studied at a teacher's training college. While a student, she suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. During her subsequent hospitalization she was forced to submit to hundreds of sessions of electroshock therapy. Frame would later detail her family life and the eight years she spent in and out of mental hospitals in three volumes of autobiography. Despite her difficulties Frame continued to write, and she published her first book of short stories while still a patient. This collection, The Lagoon, received the Hubert Church award as New Zealand's finest prose work of 1951. After the publication of the novel Owls Do Cry (1957), Frame spent several years abroad, living for periods in England, Spain, and France. She returned to New Zealand upon the death of her father in 1963 and now lives near Levin. Filmmaker Jane Campion brought the story of Frame's life to the cinema in the award-winning film An Angel at My Table (1989).
Major WorksFrame's short stories can be grouped loosely into two categories: realistic narratives dealing with childhood or the lives of lonely and alienated adults; and symbolic tales that employ fantastic and mythic elements in order to explore philosophical ideas and concepts. A story of the first type, "The Reservoir" is about a rite of passage from childhood. It revolves around the desire of several youths to visit a distant water reservoir that has been declared dangerous and off limits by their parents. "The Bath" treats a different phase of life, and depicts the hardships faced by a nearly invalided elderly woman for whom basic tasks such as bathing pose great challenges. She finds little joy in life except to visit the cemetery where her loved ones rest. In contrast to these stories that explore issues of everyday life, "Snowman, Snowman" is a highly fanciful piece, featuring a conversation between a snowman and a snowflake about existence and mortality. Similarly, "Two Sheep," which centers on a discussion among sheep on the way to the slaughterhouse, raises questions about death, fate, and the unexamined life.
Commentators have as a rule favored Frame's more naturalistic stories over her symbolic tales. Representing the views of many critics who have found the latter to be heavy-handed, Dorothy Nyren has stated that Frame "writes her symbols large, circles around them two or three times, and, then, just to make sure, explains them." However, Judith Dell Panny, writing on "Snowman, Snowman," has applauded Frame's use of symbolism. In this story, Panny has asserted, Frame "has shaped a story of considerable complexity. Instead of endorsing a body of knowledge in the manner of traditional allegories, 'Snowman, Snowman' questions old certainties. The tale subverts our expectations, making the allegory ironical." The author's literary style has also been faulted as occasionally affected and obtrusive. Yet H. Winston Rhodes has praised "the distinctive way of seeing, the double vision, the combination of inward and outward look" that Frame demonstrates in her most successful short stories, such as "Swans," "The Reservoir," and "Keel and Kool."
The Lagoon 1951; revised as The Lagoon and Other Stories, 1961
*The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches 1963
*Snowman, Snowman: Fables and Fantasies 1963
†You Are Now Entering the Human Heart 1984
Other Major Works
Owls Do Cry (novel) 1957
The Edge of the Alphabet (novel) 1962
Scented Gardens for the Blind (novel) 1963
The Adaptable Man (novel) 1965
A State of Siege (novel) 1966
The Pocket Mirror (poetry) 1967
The Rainbirds (novel) 1968; also published as Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room, 1969
Daughter Buffalo (novel) 1972
To the Is-land (autobiography) 1982
An Angel at My Table (autobiography) 1984
The Envoy from Mirror City (autobiography) 1985
The Carpathians (novel) 1988
*Selections from these two volumes comprise The Reservoir and Other Stories, 1966.
†This volume contains eleven stories: seven reprinted from Frame's earlier collections and four previously published in periodicals.
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SOURCE: "Lamentations for the Woes of Life," in The New York Times, August 21, 1963, p. 31.
[In the following review, Prescott finds the stories of The Reservoir tiringly depressing, while those of Snowman, Snowman he perceives to be generally unremarkable.]
Collections of short stories proverbially sell badly. Publishers flinch and worry when novelists insist on publication of their short stories in book form. But what is a publisher to do if he admires the novelist and is betting on his future? Usually all he can do is print a small first edition and hope that the novelist's next book will be a popular smash. George Braziller, a courageous publisher who has often backed writers that he admires but the public doesn't has thought of a new approach to the problem of the novelist with a lot of short stories ready for publication. He has put them into two handsomely printed volumes enclosed in an attractive box. Surely so impressive a package must be deserved! The stories are those of Janet Frame, a New Zealand writer, whose three novels have won wide critical applause. The two volumes are called The Reservoir and Snowman Snowman.
Janet Frame has been praised by one enthusiastic critic as "the most talented writer to come out of New Zealand since Katherine Mansfield." That her talent, particularly her poetic power with words, is genuine is beyond...
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SOURCE: "A Sense of Place," in New York Herald Tribune, August 25, 1963, p. 10.
[In the following review, Elman assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Frame's writing in The Reservoir and Snowman, Snowman.]
These short prose works by the New Zealand writer Janet Frame are curious mixtures of memoirs, parable, and nearly uninhibited fantasy.
In the pieces she has labelled stories [The Reservoir], Janet Frame uses a variety of characters to bring to our attention the private aches, fantasies and self-doubts of a particular young girl coming to maturity in rural Southern New Zealand.
In a separate volume [Snowman, Snowman], specifically marked "fables and fantasies," she departs from a strict narration of emotional autobiography to make what are presumably more—philosophical statements (but in a fictitious, impressionistic style) about our common mortality and our common and uncommon deformities.
Many of these pieces have appeared in national magazines in this country. The collection is handsomely designed, printed, and boxed, and Janet Frame's publishers quote from a reviewer who believes she is "the most talented writer to have come out of New Zealand since Katherine Mansfield."
What, one wonders, is such a remark supposed to mean? It is illiterate racehorse touting, not much better as journalism; as literary...
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SOURCE: "Needles & Pins," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 453, October 17, 1963, pp. 5-6.
[In the following excerpt, Auchincloss provides a mixed review of the collections The Reservoir and Snowman, Snowman.]
Janet Frame's anomalous stories and fables, thirty-eight of them, come boxed and showily bound in two volumes, [The Reservoir and Snowman, Snowman], urgently suggesting that should demurrers be raised as to just what they are, they are at any rate Art. Leaving aside labels, what are they on their own highly individual terms? Their author is a richly gifted writer in shaky control of her gifts; in fact, the gifts have the upper hand much of the time. But when these pieces work, some of life's sad truths come smiling out of them. One gives one's consent. When they don't, the self-indulgent writing and suffocating self-absorption are too much for their diaphanous themes.
One of the best of the stories, "The Reservoir," works with a childhood memory. Plotless, it flows and ripples as it will, but is always magnetized by a central ominous mystery: a place forbidden the children by the grownups.
A sense of childhood's spacious dimensions and its double-visioned consorting with the adult world rises like strong fumes from this recollection, seemingly unmediated by palpable art. Again, in "Prizes," a theme is followed through a number...
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SOURCE: "Janet Frame," in Commonwealth Short Stories, edited by Anna Rutherford and Donald Hannah, Edward Arnold, Ltd., 1971, pp. 148-50.
[In the following essay, Hannah finds that "Two Sheep" and A Boy's Will" are ostensibly very different but similarly convey a sense of the world as a menacing place.]
Janet Frame, a New Zealand writer, has probably more compelling personal reasons for writing than any other author in this anthology. Having spent eight years of her life in a mental hospital she consulted yet another doctor, and 'was astonished and grateful to hear him refute all previous commandments—"Why mix, why conform? I think you need to write to survive'." And later in the same article in the New Zealand periodical Landfall, No. 73, she states:
Though I began writing when I was a child and have never really stopped writing, I think I really began when my need to write was understood. . . . Freedom to write is a very narrow freedom among the many personal imprisonments suffered by those who want to write, yet it is the master key, and if a writer has determination enough to turn the key . . . then he may be able to put his dreamed works into words.
From these circumstances come some of her chief concerns as an author, which can also be traced in "A Boy's Will": her preoccupation with the inner life, her...
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SOURCE: "'Farthest from the Heart': The Autobiographical Parables of Janet Frame," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 31-40.
[In the following essay, Evans discusses Frame's "tendency to write about herself and her experiences as if she were writing about other things."]
No one approaches Janet Frame's writing for an evening of light entertainment. The atmosphere of her work is almost unrelievedly dark; its texture thick with imagery and allusion; its plots full of deceits engineered to trick the reader; its significance half-stated and often obscure, as if the process of writing has not fully released the impulses which have brought it about. It is this last quality which I wish to discuss in this essay: the sense gained by any copious reader of her work that it represents a recurring engagement with the business of writing itself, with the relationships of words and things, and with the limiting nature of the things we attempt to discuss with words, rather than being a process of steadily expressing a vision that is largely preconceived.
In discussing this, as will be evident, I have broken the rule which states that a writer's life has nothing to do with a writer's art. I break it because it does not fit the writer: Janet Frame seems to me to dictate a different critical approach because, as anyone familiar with the details of her life will know, she...
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SOURCE: "Janet Frame: A Way of Seeing in The Lagoon and Other Stories," in Critical Essays on the New Zealand Short Story, edited by Cherry Hankin, Heinemann Publishers, 1982, pp. 112-31.
[In the following survey, Rhodes contends that Frame's early short stories are distinguished by her treatment of perception, both of the external world and of the inner lives of characters.]
'Yes I have a pair of eyes', replied Sam, 'and that's just it. If they wos a pair o' patent double million magnifyin' gas microscopes of hextra power, p'raps I might be able to see through a flight o' stairs and a deal door; but bein' only eyes, you see, my wision's limited.' When Janet Frame was typing her Lagoon stories in a glorified linen cupboard, converted into a bedroom at the boarding-house where she was working for a short period, her outward 'wision', like Sam Weller's, was also restricted. She felt, or Jan Godfrey felt, or possibly it was Alison Hendry who felt 'like Juliet lying in a vault'.
You see there were shelves all round the walls, and sometimes I could feel the prickly feel of artificial flowers
that are made into wreaths and covered with a bell jar, and
put in the tomb with the dead people.
Nevertheless, in this small room without wide windows she required no optical aids...
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SOURCE: "The Road to Independence," in The Times Literary Supplement, November 9, 1984, p. 1281.
[In the following review, Adcock observes that Frame's collection You Are Now Entering the Human Heart mixes realism with "bizarre fantasy and semi-didactic allegory."]
The first volume of Janet Frame's absorbing autobiography, To the Is-Land, told of her childhood in the South Island of New Zealand with her railwayman father, her harassed "poetic" mother who talked of books but never had time to read them, her brother, and her three sisters. The oldest sister drowned, the brother was seriously epileptic, there was never enough money; but Janet, in her skimpy home-made uniform and embarrassing home-made sanitary towels, got through High School and was accepted for training as a teacher. An Angel at My Table begins with her journey south from Oamaru, from a family that seemed "enveloped in doom", to the Training College in Dunedin. She was a quiet, shy student, "no trouble at all" to lecturers or landladies. Just after her twenty-first birthday, when she was in her probationary teaching year, the inspector arrived in her classroom; she excused herself politely and walked out of the school. A few weeks later she was taken to the first of several mental hospitals and diagnosed as schizophrenic.
The numbingly terrible history of the following nine years (1945 to 1954) is...
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SOURCE: "Outside the Brown Picket-Fence," in The Times Literary Supplement, May 31, 1991, p. 21.
[In the following review, Aitken judges the short fiction in The Reservoir and Other Stories "powerful and refreshing."]
People are sometimes admitted to psychiatric hospitals as a result of the misdemeanour of writing: this book set its author free and cancelled the leucotomy she had been about to suffer. The twenty-four stories in The Lagoon were written in the late 1940s when Janet Frame—in flight from school teaching—was in and out of mental hospitals (diagnosed as schizophrenic) and worked as a domestic in hotels and hospitals. The stories were sent by a psychiatrist to Denis Glover, who placed one in the literary magazine Landfall and published the collection in 1951. Its obsession with childhood affronted the widespread critical assumption that New Zealand literature had put away childish things, but the book won the Hubert Church Award and rescued Frame from her well-meaning tormentors. It makes its English début, forty years on, launching Bloomsbury's new series of pocket-sized classics. If the format is self-conscious (three different styles of gold lettering in seven words), the work—albeit sometimes incompletely realized—is powerful and refreshing.
It is not surprising that commonsensical New Zealanders found Frame disturbing. She...
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SOURCE: "Snowman, Snowman," in 'I have what I gave': The Fiction of Janet Frame, Daphne Brasell Associates Press, 1992, pp. 50-6.
[In the following excerpt, Panny explicates the short story "Snowman, Snowman" as an allegory.]
Whom we might meet as we pass into the "for ever" of death is one of the questions posed in The Edge of the Alphabet; the story "Snowman, Snowman" considers the nature of the destination, the "place" where one is to live "for ever and ever." . . . ["Snowman, Snowman" is] a skilfully composed allegory focused on fundamental human concerns. Other stories by Frame can be read as parables or fables, but the near-novella length of this one sets it apart. In "Snowman, Snowman" there is no emphasis on character to mask or detract from the allegorical intention: the protagonists are a snowman and a snowflake.
Published in 1963, "Snowman, Snowman" was the title story in the volume Snowman, Snowman: Fables and Fantasies. Frame's longest story, it was one of those she chose to be reprinted in the 1983 collection You Are Now Entering the Human Heart. It is a tale of a talking snowman who looks on the world with wondering eyes and a questioning mind. His mentor, the Perpetual Snowflake stationed on a nearby windowsill, helps him to interpret what he sees. The action is confined to part of a street that is within Snowman's range of...
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SOURCE: "'Two Sheep': A Fable," in The Ring of Fire: Essays on Janet Frame, edited by Jeanne Delbaere, Dangaroo Press, 1992, pp. 54-62.
[In the following essay, Mattei interprets the story "Two Sheep" as an existential fable.]
'Everything is always a story, but the loveliest ones are those that get written and are not torn up and are taken to a friend as payment for listening, for putting a wise ear to the keyhole of my mind', says the narrator-protagonist—who is, significantly, a writer—of 'Jan Godfrey', a story included in Janet Frame's first collection, The Lagoon. And the reader-friend who embarks on a story by New Zealand's most distinguished author, 'putting a wise ear to the keyhole of her mind', must be prepared to listen to disturbing things, things from 'that world' at the edge of the alphabet—the border-land between the imaginary and the real—often evoked in passages which strive to attain the condition of music and whose compact, contrapuntal texture dissolves in a rhythmic sequence of chromatic intervals, pure, independent sounds, cries of the soul.
The reader is immediately struck by the visionary, prophetic quality of these passages, which are almost expressionistic both in their moments of extreme dynamic tension, and in those of rapt stillness. They combine mytho-poetic fantasy with rigorous logic, a taste for paradox with a passion for...
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Craig, David. "Tanks, Trees." New Statesman 71 (11 March 1966): 347-48.
Applauds the naturalistic stories in The Reservoir but criticizes Frame's fantastic tales and her habit of "wishing sinister or apocalyptic significances onto her humdrum fabrics."
Evans, Patrick. Janet Frame. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977, 228 p.
Biocritical study that focuses primarily on Frame's novels but also discusses The Lagoon, The Reservoir, and uncollected stories.
Nyren, Dorothy. A review of Snowman, Snowman and The Reservoir. Library Journal 88, No. 14 (August 1963): 2926.
Summarizes the types of stories in these collections as "memories of childhood and allegorical moralities." Nyren finds Frame to be a heavy-handed author: "She writers her symbols large, circles around them two or three times, and, then, just to make sure, explains them."
"The Slipcase Syndrome." Time 82, No. 12 (20 September 1963): 108, 110.
Disparages The Reservoir and Snowman, Snowman: "Like her excellent . . . novel, Faces in the Water, the short pieces collected here deal with failure, loneliness, quiet despair, and the rubble-filled borderland between sanity and madness. But...
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