Frame, Janet (Vol. 96)
Janet Frame 1924–
New Zealand novelist, autobiographer, short story writer, and poet.
The following entry presents an overview of Frame's works through 1992. For further information on her life and career, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 6, 22, and 66.
Frame is one of New Zealand's most well-known contemporary fiction writers and has published numerous novels, stories, and poems, many of which are set in her native country. Much of her fiction is marked by a concern with death, language, poverty, and madness—conditions with which she became familiar while growing up during the Depression, and later when she spent several years in a mental institution after being diagnosed erroneously as a schizophrenic. Frame often explores misconceptions about insanity by juxtaposing madness and fantasy with reality. She also frequently employs figurative language in an effort to depict the ways in which people communicate—or fail to communicate. W. H. New explained that "for the patient reader of her fiction, the … reward derives from the aesthetic demands the author makes; to read Frame's stories is not merely to be invited to meet a set of characters and a range of strange events, but also to be drawn into framed narratives where the structures of the prose are themselves the means and the metaphors of perceptual understanding."
Frame began writing as a child in an effort to liberate herself from what she termed "a background of poverty, drunkenness, attempted murder, and near-madness." During the Depression, her large family scraped out a living in a rural area of New Zealand and suffered several tragedies: two of her sisters drowned in separate incidents, and her younger brother suffered many seizures from epilepsy. Though she wanted to be a writer, Frame studied teaching in college but soon suffered a nervous breakdown that landed her in a psychiatric hospital and effectively ended her teaching career. She was forced to submit to hundreds of sessions of electroshock therapy, but despite this she continued to write and published her first book of short stories, The Lagoon (1951), while still a patient. Reflecting her abiding concerns for destructive familial relationships and the consequences of miscommunication between individuals and societies, Frame's writing addresses the social inequities of people who are perceived as being psychologically, physically, or intellectually inferior by those possessing political power.
Frame's early novels are generally regarded as disturbing and powerful. These include Owls Do Cry (1957), which concerns a woman struggling to survive in a psychiatric hospital; Intensive Care (1970), a story about the creation of legislation that would rid the world of misfits; and Scented Gardens for the Blind (1963), an allegorical tale about the possible atomic destruction of Britain. Robert Osterman commented on Frame's early work: "No one can call Janet Frame an easy novelist to come to terms with. Her imagination is most comfortable with subjects like madness, personal dislocations in time and place, and the use of dreams and illusions to keep life at bay. And deep in all her fiction lies a passionate concern for language and the betrayals of human purpose it can be made to serve." Much of Frame's fiction contains autobiographical elements, but it was not until the publication of her three-volume autobiography in the 1980s that Frame revealed the details of her family life and the eight years she spent in and out of mental hospitals as a young woman. To the Is-Land (1982) traces Frame's poverty-stricken childhood in New Zealand and investigates some of the incidents that later led to a series of nervous breakdowns. In the second installment, An Angel at My Table (1984), Frame recounts her experiences as a student at a teacher's training college and the events that caused her to flee from an assignment when an inspector entered her class to observe her lesson. After this incident Frame attempted suicide for the first time, was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and sent to a mental hospital where "the squalor and inhumanity were almost indescribable." The narrative of The Envoy from the Mirror City (1985) begins after Frame was released from psychiatric care. Deciding to move to England to broaden her experience and to develop her talents as a writer, Frame visits a respected mental facility in London and discovers that the diagnosis of schizophrenia which had ruled her life for so many years was incorrect. Although unnerved by the implications of this discovery, Frame continues to rely upon the rejuvenating powers of writing to which she had always been drawn: "It is a little wonder that I value writing as a way of life when it actually saved my life." In 1989 New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion brought Frame's story to the cinema in the award-winning film An Angel at My Table, which dramatizes many of the events in the three volumes of Frame's autobiography. Frame has continued to garner critical acclaim with her subsequent novels, most notably The Carpathians (1988), which won Frame a Commonwealth Literary Prize. The Carpathians takes place in the fictional town of Puamahara, New Zealand, where a local legend purports that a young Maori woman gained unusual knowledge of human history after tasting the fruit of an unknown tree. Mattina Breton, a wealthy New Yorker, travels to New Zealand to learn the source of the folktale from Puamahara's eccentric residents and becomes fascinated by reports of the Gravity Star, an astral phenomenon that—if real—would challenge common perceptions of time and space and destroy the world.
Several critics, including Owen Leeming, have commented on how difficult Frame's novels can be to interpret. Narrators cannot be assumed to be truthful, and events cannot necessarily be taken as fact. Many critics have praised the lyrical, complex language and word games Frame employs in her fiction; the names of her characters are frequently symbolic, like Thera Pattern in The Edge of the Alphabet (1962), Vera Glace in Scented Gardens for the Blind, and Malfred Signal in A State of Siege (1966), but other critics have dismissed these tactics as a distraction from her thematic intentions. In addition, some critics have faulted The Carpathians for complex and interrelated elements of reality and fantasy, but have lauded her exploration of the relationships between language, conformity, and the mysteries of time and space. Jayne Pilling has commented: "As so often in Frame's novels, there's a curious, combustible mix of modes at work here. An apparently straightforward narrative is exploded from within by a mother-load of metaphor…. Yet its possibilities are so rich that Frame needs several different narratives, Chinese-box style, to contain them." Thomas Crawford has called her "our most subjective writer," but her depictions of 1950s mental hospitals are considered by most to be a valuable insight into a system marked by abuse of power and neglect of the individual. One criticism of Frame's portrayal of social inequities is that she is quick to point out the shortcomings of the bourgeoisie, but she never proposes a solution; as Muriel Haynes has explained it, Frame is an "obsessed mourner" who is "steeped in nostalgia and, in her grief for man's betrayal of his sustaining myths, tends to slight present social and cultural complexities." Jeanne Delbare-Garant, in an essay regarding Frame's early novels, has praised the author's technical skill, stating that "Frame herself is, like Orpheus, the keeper of the lighthouse and the guardian of language, the torchbearer standing in the radiance of the perfect circle, the authentic Dasein through which being reveals itself and, like the wind in a tree, sends its message to the rest of mankind."
The Lagoon (short stories) 1951
Owls Do Cry (novel) 1957
Faces in the Winter (novel) 1961
The Edge of the Alphabet (novel) 1962
The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches (short stories) 1963
Scented Gardens for the Blind (novel) 1963
Snowman, Snowman: Fables and Fantasies (short stories) 1963
The Adaptable Man (novel) 1965
A State of Siege (novel) 1966
The Pocket Mirror (poetry) 1967
The Rainbirds [published in the United States as Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room] (novel) 1968
Intensive Care (novel) 1970
Daughter Buffalo (novel) 1972
Living in the Maniototo (novel) 1979
To the Is-Land (autobiography) 1982
An Angel at My Table (autobiography) 1984
You Are Now Entering the Human Heart (short stories) 1984
The Envoy from the Mirror City (autobiography) 1985
The Carpathians (novel) 1988
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SOURCE: A review of Faces in the Water, in Saturday Review, September 9, 1961, p. 23.
[Pippett is a British editor, biographer, and critic. In the following review, she finds that Frame expresses "an underlying truth about our common humanity" in Faces in the Water.]
A prefatory note states that this book, [Janet Frame's Faces in the Water,] although in documentary form, is a work of fiction. This claim to be true in outline and essence is amply justified. As a report on mental hospitals in New Zealand it checks with accounts from many countries about similar conditions of overcrowding and shortage of adequately trained staffs. As a novel it carries conviction because the author has artistic integrity and intuitive understanding. She is firmly in control of her material and sure of her direction, as the unfortunate girl who here tells her own story of nine years of physical confinement and mental confusion so piteously was not.
The choice of the odd name of Estina Mavet for her hapless heroine is an indication of Miss Frame's skill, for it immediately suggests divergence from the normal, since no other character in the story, mad or sane, is so outlandishly identified. But Estina's apartness from her real self and from other people was not complete. At times reduced to almost subhuman level, she retained some awareness of her plight; she knew she was mad, in a madhouse,...
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SOURCE: "Ordeal at Cliffhaven," in The New York Times Book Review, October 8, 1961, p. 36.
[Pick is an Austrian-born novelist, editor, and translator. In the following review, he discusses the literary device of allegory as it pertains to Frame's Faces in the Water.]
When Miss Frame's first book, Owls Do Cry, appeared a year ago, it was hailed as the first important novel to come out of New Zealand. Her new novel [Faces in the Water] is an equally remarkable achievement. Presented as the memoir of a cured mental patient, its blend of on-the-spot observation and hindsight, far from weakening the immediacy of the writing, strengthens its power. A disturbing book, it grows confusing only when the author permits her apparent love of poetical metaphor to invade her prose, with the result that the reader is left wondering to which plane of experience these lyricisms belong.
The narrator of the story is Istina, a young woman and onetime teacher, who has spent several years behind asylum walls in her native New Zealand. Once she is "signed out of hospital" by her married sister against the advice of the doctors, but after six weeks finds herself back in Cliffhaven, in bed "in the observation dormitory and gazing with terror at the treatment room." Her remembrances spare the reader none of the horrors of that estranged world in its effect on the ill mind. Yet quite unlike most...
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SOURCE: A review of The Edge of the Alphabet, in Landfall, Vol. 17, No. 1, March, 1963, pp. 192-95.
[Crawford is a Scottish educator, writer, and critic. In the mixed review below, he praises Frame's The Edge of the Alphabet for its rhetoric and cadence, stating that Frame writes in a language "so eloquent that few of her contemporaries can equal it."]
It is hard for the novelist of the lost childhood, the madhouse or the concentration camp to write about the so-called 'real' contemporary world. Janet Frame tries to do it in [The Edge of the Alphabet]; the result is part failure, part success.
Her failure is the inevitable consequence of pretending that the book is a manuscript 'found among the papers of Thora Pattern after her death, and submitted to the publishers by Peter Heron, Hire-Purchase Salesman.' It is a nineteenth century, even an eighteenth century device. None the worse for that, you may well say—but then the personae of Scott and the Gothic Novelists weren't in the habit of addressing their characters directly, nor were they so closely identified with their creator. Another trait reminiscent of early novels is the frequency with which essayistic comments on Life (presumably Thora Pattern's comments) are scattered throughout the book.
The novel about the writer composing a novel belongs to a more recent tradition than Sir...
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SOURCE: "When the Spell Works It's Binding," in The New York Times Book Review, August 8, 1965, p. 4.
[Sheed is a British novelist, editor, columnist, and critic. In the following review, he praises Frame's The Adaptable Man, considering the novel "comic, intense, [and] stylish."]
The New Zealand authoress Janet Frame is a "witch-novelist" who stirs her plots under a full moon and has various magic powers, including a number-one witch's curse. Her prose style is a series of charms and incantations, passwords repeated in a baleful voice, which hex up the whole landscape, turning the vegetables into people and the people back into vegetables, or worse: into rock formations, soap advertisements or ancient ruins.
These alchemistic tricks are central to her new novel, [The Adaptable Man,] which concerns the urge of people and things to adapt, to assume the right shapes for the 20th century. Each of her characters would like to become the human equivalent of a television antenna or a three-day deodorant or a really good museum piece. Under Miss Frame's curse, they become instead crystal radios, one-day deodorants, museum rejects.
Even the village they live in (one of those whimsical English ones well-known to mystery readers) is struggling to adapt—to become a jet airport or a thruway or a history reserve. A hundred local deities fuse in this effort, sprites...
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SOURCE: A review of A State of Siege, in Best Sellers, Vol. 26, No. 8, July 15, 1966, pp. 149-50.
[In the review below, Anderson praises Frame's A State of Siege, considering it "a truly singular reading experience."]
The truly singular reading experience does not present itself very frequently in modern fiction. Janet Frame's latest novel, A State of Siege, affords just such a rare privilege. The book allows the reader a remarkably intimate intrusion into the subtly tragic life of Malfred Signal, retired art teacher whose entire being had been directed toward two things: teaching young girls how to draw and nursing a dying mother who "stayed so long that her role had become fictional."
The mother is dead and Malfred is left with that paradoxical bereaved elation known only to those suddenly released from a dying aged parent who had forced them by illness and circumstance to sacrifice a lifetime of opportunities to live themselves. At 53 Malfred retires, released at last to make one last attempt at life.
Malfred decides to sever all ties, in spite of the remonstrances from family and friends, and to move "up North" to the remote island of Karemoana, the fringe of New Zealand. Here in a small cottage she will attempt to live the answer to a question—"can release given by death, by her mother's death, promise a lifetime of bounty?" The novel is the...
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SOURCE: "Nature as Status," in Saturday Review, April 19, 1969, pp. 41-2.
[In the review below, Haynes offers a mixed assessment of Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room, finding in it a "virtuosity" that eventually "wears thin."]
The New Zealand Novelist Janet Frame is an obsessed mourner at the grave of the ancient mysteries that once linked the individual and his group in a tradition of man's oneness with the universe. [Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room] seems intended as a parable of our grievous separation from the mythic past. Yet its hold on the form is shaky; I find it more satisfying when read as an inquiry—by a compulsively directed poetic imagination—into the darkness that lies beneath our supposed enlightenment. Story is not so much side-stepped as skewed to serve the author's preoccupations: reversals of symbolic meaning; contradictions in our perception of what is real (sanity, health) and what is illusion (madness, disease); death in life and its opposite.
The narrative derives from a rite of initiation. The adventurer crosses the threshold into the unknown and returns, radically transformed, to be reborn. The modern world, however, does not "permit" the regenerative cycle to be completed. The voyager's new knowledge threatens a temporal society that exalts utility above all, and he is cast out, for he has lost material value. "Everything could be...
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SOURCE: A review of The Rainbirds, in Landfall, Vol. 23, No. 2, June, 1969, pp. 189-94.
[In the review below, Evans finds that while The Rainbirds is occasionally threatened by "artistically gratuitous passages of authorial comment," it is exemplary of Frame's "immense verbal talent."]
The newest inhabitant of Janet Frame's world is thirty-year-old Godfrey Rainbird, an English immigrant who has become a Dunedin clerk, and who has a wife, a house with a view, and two children. In The Rainbirds, Godfrey experiences death and resurrection in suburbia. He is taken lifeless to the morgue after being knocked down one night on the way home from a meeting. His wife, her parents, his children and sister smoothly assume the attitudes of grief expected and accepted by society; his older sister Lynley decides to emigrate from England in time for the funeral, and this ceremony is expensively, lavishly prepared without love but with a monogrammed coffin. But fate has cruelly tricked them all: Godfrey wakes from a coma, a sleep of death and not death itself, and all those who reconciled themselves so swiftly to his going find it impossible to reconcile themselves to his return. His 'corpseness' constantly repels his wife Beatrice; both now possess an unspoken awareness of the presence of death in life. She often thinks and speaks of him in the preterite, is aware of the coldness of his body and...
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SOURCE: "A Sort of Anzac Peter Ibbetsen and Family," in The New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1970, p. 4.
[Moynahan is an American educator, novelist, essayist, and critic. In the review of Intensive Care below, he criticizes Frame for not answering the many questions she raises in the novel.]
Janet Frame is a New Zealand novelist and poet who is not well known in this country and whose eighth novel, Intensive Care, is unlikely to win her many new converts among the novel-reading public. The book is sprawling and invertebrate, overwritten at times in a vein of capricious prose-poetry and actual poetry, indifferent to problems of construction and coherence raised by its episodic, disjunctive plot, simplistic and even careless with respect to the moral issues the lives of its principal characters fitfully reflect. Although it is arranged in three parts and employs the services of five narrators, these compositional tactics remain pro forma and never work together to create form and a controlling perspective upon a world one can take seriously.
Intensive Care opens promisingly when a sort of Anzac Peter Ibbetson named Tom Livingstone goes from Waipori City, N. Z., to England in search of a nurse originally encountered during the Great War and whom he has secretly loved for 50 years. But this adventure peters out and Tom dies, and the book shifts to consider the...
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SOURCE: A review of Intensive Care, in America, Vol. 122, No. 20, May 23, 1970, pp. 565-66.
[Corbett is an American educator, writer, and critic. In the review below, he approaches Frame's fiction ambivalently, stating that Intensive Care is "like no other novel I have ever read."]
[Intensive Care] is a difficult book to describe or evaluate. It is like no other novel I have ever read; and having read this one, I am still uncertain whether I will ever be disposed to read any of Janet Frame's previously published seven novels.
Yet the quotes on the dust jacket are unstinting in their praise of the earlier novels—John Barkham on the first novel, Owls Do Cry: "The most talented novelist to have come out of New Zealand since Katherine Mansfield"; Stanley Hyman on her Scented Gardens for the Blind: "This amazing book is the most remarkable I have read in a long time. A brilliant and overwhelming tour de force." Any writer who can get a publisher to risk his capital on eight full-length novels and can elicit high praise from estimable critics has to be given a serious reading.
What makes my own reaction to this first serious reading of a Janet Frame novel so ambivalent is that I am baffled by her technique and puzzled about what she is trying to say. The novel presents a number of fleeting episodes, moving back and forth in time...
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SOURCE: "Daphne's Metamorphoses in Janet Frame's Early Novels," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 6, No. 2, April, 1975, pp. 23-37.
[In the essay below, Delbaere-Garant traces similarities between Daphne, the protagonist of Owls Do Cry, and the characters in Frame's novels Faces in the Water, The Edge of the Alphabet, and Scented Gardens for the Blind.]
Owls Do Cry, Janet Frame's first novel, begins with a message in italics signed "Daphne from the deadroom." Other such mysterious and poetical messages by the same hand are scattered throughout the story which introduces us to Daphne as a child and tells us about the circumstances which led her to the madhouse. Daphne is the first version of a recurrent figure in Janet Frame's early novels which I propose to examine in the present article. The other versions are Istina Mavet in Faces in the Water, Thora Pattern in The Edge of the Alphabet and Vera Glace in Scented Gardens for the Blind. They form a complex pattern of overlapping features, cross-references and recurrent motifs which gradually completes itself and out of which a more or less complete image of the character as a whole finally emerges.
Daphne is one of the four Withers children. She has two sisters, Francie and Chicks, and a brother, Toby, an epileptic. One day, while the children are playing in the rubbish...
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SOURCE: "The Rhetoric of Rejection: Janet Frame's Recent Work," in South Pacific Images, edited by Chris Tiffin, South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, 1978, pp. 196-203.
[Ferrier is an educator and editor. In the following essay, she discusses thematic shifts in Frame's fiction from her earlier to her later works.]
Through the carefully-woven patterns of imagery and symbolism which distinguish Janet Frame's novels runs a dominant theme—that of oppositions. These range from the antinomies of treasure and rubbish around which Owls Do Cry is organised, to the juxtaposition of 'this' and 'that' world, discussed by Frame in a well-known interview [in Landfall, 19, March, 1965.] In Frame's earlier novels, the opposition is between perceptions categorised as the opposition between the 'sane' and 'insane' views of one's society, and it is clear that for Frame the insane view has ultimate validity. As she continues writing through the sixties, her characters' consciousness of radical dissociation from their surrounding society increasingly finds its culmination in death after a loss of touch with material reality. The emphasis shifts from mental to physical vulnerability, A State of Siege (1966) marking the point of greatest fusion of the physical and the psychological. We no longer know by the end of this novel if all of what is being recounted has in...
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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 traces the parallels between themes, techniques, and metaphors in Frame's early stories to those in her later works.]
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: "The Girl from New Zealand," in The New York Times Book Review, November 21, 1992, pp. 14, 34.
[Bevington is an American educator, poet, and critic. In the following review of To the Island, she notes that Frame's book, while part of a trilogy, can stand alone as an autobiographical work.]
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SOURCE: A review of To the Is-Land: An Autobiography, in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1983, p. 352.
[McLeod is an Australian-born educator, poet, and critic. In the following review, he discusses Frame's autobiographical style in To the Is-Land, considering it unsatisfactory and lacking in discretion.]
Herbert Spencer observed that the autobiographer "is obliged to omit from his narrative the commonplace of daily life," while Somerset Maugham noted that the writer of an autobiography often places too great an emphasis on matters that are more common than supposed. Certainly Janet Frame, in this first volume of her autobiography [To the Is-Land] (which ends with her acceptance to university), has not observed Spencer's dictum: almost every incident, observation, riposte or reaction has been recalled for inclusion, though not always of interest to the reader or of ready significance to her own psychological or literary development.
It is this lack of selectivity—of discretion, perhaps—that accounts for the failure of this work, even when compared with such an obvious (and not wholly satisfactory) recent example as Patrick White's Flaws in the Glass. Whereas White's book provides too little detail of his life, beliefs and interests, Frame's prolixity concerning ordinary experiences of early childhood and adolescence gives her work a...
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SOURCE: "The Frame Story World of Janet Frame," in Essays on Canadian Writing, Vol. 29, Spring, 1984, pp. 175-191.
[New is a Canadian educator, essayist, editor, and critic. In the following essay, he discusses the theoretical structure and narrative framing devices commonly used by Frame in her writing.]
Since 1951, when her first work, The Lagoon, appeared, Janet Frame has gathered a faithful international readership. At first noticed only in her native New Zealand, where as a short story writer she remained in Katherine Mansfield's shadow, she began to publish in the United States and England (with George Braziller and W.H. Allen) in the early 1960s. In 1960 Braziller reprinted her first novel, Owls Do Cry (published initially in Christchurch in 1957), and in a spate of creative energy, Frame produced nine more novels, two books of short stories, a children's tale, and a book of poems over the next nineteen years. Restless, introspective, sometimes lyrical and sometimes savagely ironic, her work as a whole explores a distinctive and often private world, which the author, in denser and denser metaphor, repeatedly strives to make clear and struggles to share. For the faithful reader, the aesthetic rewards are substantial. Frame is not only one of New Zealand's most forceful contemporary novelists, reflecting sharply on her own society's mores, but also one whose explorations of metaphoric...
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SOURCE: "New Zealand," in World Literature Today, Vol. 59, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. 488-89.
[In the review of An Angel at My Table below, McLeod criticizes the kind of autobiographical information Frame includes in her work.]
Two years ago Janet Frame brought out the first volume, To the Is-Land, of her projected three-volume autobiography: that installment concluded with her departure from home for university and city life; the second one, An Angel at My Table, ends with her departure from New Zealand for England and continental life, thus chronicling almost fifteen years of social, psychological, and literary struggle in which she was judged schizophrenic (and almost lobotomized), was adjudged winner of a small literary prize, and was adjudicated worthy of government support as a promising writer. Though she takes pains to deny her mental abnormality, she also takes pains to stress her insecurity at placing coins in a telephone, picking up a college newspaper, and submitting contributions to a university periodical.
As in the first volume, Frame dwells on odd behavior (keeping sanitary napkins with soiled clothes and chocolate wrappers in a chest of drawers), admits her general naïveté (of lesbianism, masturbation, homosexuality, and European literature), and details her disregard of personal cleanliness (clothing, rotting teeth, menstruation). Her eight years...
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SOURCE: "Janet Frame and the Art of Life," in Meanjin, Vol. 44, No. 3, September, 1985, pp. 375-83.
[In the following essay, Evans discusses Frame's career as it is explored in the first three volumes of her autobiography, To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City.]
With the publication at sixty of the first three volumes of her autobiography (To the Is-land, 1983; An Angel at My Table, 1984; The Envoy from Mirror City, 1985), Janet Frame gives the impression of rounding out her long career as a writer. Her first published story appeared just after the Second World War; since then there have been five volumes of short fiction, one of poetry, ten novels, a children's book, and three volumes of autobiography. If the latter is in fact the end of things it will conclude one of the oddest and most distinctive bodies of writing in the history of English. While she is demonstrably a New Zealand writer and a writer of her time, she has also made her own rules and is directly influenced by nobody. Least of all is she concerned, it seems, with any notion of penetrability; reading her fiction is like tangling in a thicket of words and illusions, constantly being moved away from the possibility of explanation or meaning. Hers is the novel (Scented Gardens for the Blind, published in 1963) in which a young girl has long conversations about death with a...
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SOURCE: "Exploring 'The Secret Caves of Language': Janet Frame's Poetry," in Meanjin, Vol. 44, No. 3, September, 1985, pp. 384-90.
[In the following essay, Mercer examines Frame's poetry in The Pocket Mirror as well as the more poetic passages of her novels, finding both to be "innovative and engrossing."]
When she was sixteen, Janet Frame wrote in her diary, 'Dear Mr Ardenue, they think I'm going to be a schoolteacher, but I'm going to be a poet'. She has become a poet, but she is still beset by the problem of a 'they' who think she is, or ought to be, something else.
Janet Frame is repeatedly referred to as a 'novelist'. This, despite the fact that ten of her twenty published books are not novels, but volumes of short fiction, poetry, autobiography and children's fiction. Of the ten remaining books, Frame calls only one a 'novel', to explicitly distinguish it from her other long fictions, which she calls 'explorations'. She eschews the label 'novel' and, one may assume, 'novelist', because of the restrictive expectations such labels engender. Yet she continues to be referred to as a 'novelist' by journalists and critics alike. Frame, though, is neither a 'novelist' nor a 'poet' exclusively. She is an explorer in language, boldly crossing forbidden borders of form and style. One of the most fixed and impassable borders in literature is that between poetry and prose, yet...
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SOURCE: "In the Imagination's True Country," in The New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1985, p. 30
[In the review below, Sternhell compares the third volume of Frame's autobiography, The Envoy from Mirror City, to the previous volumes, To the Is-Land and An Angel at My Table.]
Even as a small child, Janet Frame believed that words were magic. She collected bright moments of language as other children might gather shiny marbles or seashells, protective totems against the crowded, puzzling world of home and school. She was not completely surprised, years later, when literature quite literally saved her—when a scheduled lobotomy was canceled at the last minute because her first book of short stories had unexpectedly won a prize. "It was my writing that at last came to my rescue," she told us quietly in An Angel at My Table, her second autobiographical volume, after detailing eight horrifying years spent in and out of mental hospitals. "It is little wonder that I value writing as a way of life when it actually saved my life."
"It actually saved my life." To Miss Frame, now one of New Zealand's best-known novelists, writing has always salvaged the past and promised the future; it has always offered a way out and a way in. The awkward, eager girl she described in To the Is-Land the first volume of her autobiography, lived as much in the world of...
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SOURCE: "Linguistic Transformation and Reflection in Janet Frame's Living in the Maniototo," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 27, No. 2, Autumn, 1987, pp. 320-26.
[In the essay below, Ross analyzes Frame's use of language in Living in the Maniototo, concluding that Frame is able to transcend conventional narrative structures through the manipulation of language.]
Janet Frame has travelled often to the "Is-Land," the "Table" where the angel hovers, to "Mirror City," then returned to tell the truth allotted her. But she owns only language to transform this "view over all time and space" into a coherent vision that reflects the "treasures" she beheld and touched during her travels. Often, she admits, "the medium of language" fails, for the revelations she attempts "have acquired imperfections … never intended for them … have lost meaning that seemed, once, to shine from them." Frame has, nonetheless, consistently demonstrated that the tradition-bound barriers of language need not constrict—in fact, demonstrated this so fully that she has invented a new kind of novel that contradicts its very form.
Those approaching Frame's work critically always note its non-novelistic tenor. For instance, Margaret Atwood says in a review of Living in the Maniototo, "Frame spurns plot except as a device for prodding the reader." To C.K. Stead the work "challenges its...
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SOURCE: "Owls Do Cry: Portrait of New Zealand," in Landfall, Vol. 44, No. 3, September, 1990, pp. 350-58.
[In the following essay, Brown comments on the way in which Frame analyzes New Zealand society in her novel Owls Do Cry.]
Janet Frame emerged in 1954 after eight years in hospital to join a literary academy which had strong views about society's shortcomings. New Zealand was held to be narrow, bourgeois, puritanical, philistine, boring and materialist. Two influential articles in Landfall: Pearson's 'Fretful Sleepers' (1952) and Chapman's 'Fiction and the Social Pattern' (1953) elaborated a perception of New Zealand which by that time had transcended the status of opinion and become accepted as fact. The fringes of the perception were open to modification—Pearson predicted that puritanism was about to be replaced by shallow and sneering hedonism, while Chapman concentrated on explaining why New Zealand society was so puritanical—but no-one suggested that the central tenets of the theory were all wrong. New Zealand was fixed in literary perception as a land materially prosperous and culturally poor. The perception did not include consideration of the nature of global consumer capitalism and New Zealand's part in it: it just insisted that life should have been different and blamed New Zealanders for having failed to make it so.
Owls Do Cry, first published in...
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SOURCE: "'An Honest Record': An Interview with Janet Frame," in Landfall, Vol. 45, No. 2, June, 1991, pp. 154-68.
[In the interview with Alley below, Frame discusses her thoughts on the genres of autobiography and fiction as well as on the act of writing.]
What follows is made out of two separate interviews recorded for Radio New Zealand by Elizabeth Alley and broadcast on the Concert Programme. The first was recorded at Wanganui in April 1983. The second was recorded in 1988 when Elizabeth Alley visited Janet Frame at her home, this time near the small North Island town of Shannon, in a valley of rich grasslands fringed by the jagged range of the Tararuas. This is the mountain range that became the Carpathians of her eleventh novel, and her first long fiction since she completed the three volumes of autobiography.
Janet Frame does not enjoy interviews. Nevertheless, at Wanganui and five years later in her Shannon farmhouse with its Rhode Island red chickens, some geese and assorted animals who visit from the neighbouring farm, she submitted with much grace but some discomfort to conversations about her writing. The writer for whom the written word is an instrument of magic, for whom language is in its widest sense 'the hawk suspended above eternity', finds the spoken word, the expression of ideas about herself or her writing, can be undertaken only with effort and cost to her work....
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SOURCE: "Janet Frame," in International Literature in English: Essays on the Major Writers, edited by Robert L. Ross, Garland Publishing, 1991, pp. 547-56.
[Potter is an American educator and short story writer who has lived in New Zealand. In the essay below, she provides a brief synopsis of each of Frame's major works and discusses the literary climate of the eras in which they were published.]
Janet Frame has characterized the New Zealand society of her youth as a house with neither basement nor attic. This metaphor illuminates only one aspect of her complicated background. More substantial details of Frame's life are treated impressionistically in her three-volume autobiography, particularly the enduring poverty of the Depression, tragic accidents, and a series of misfortunes that haunted her early years.
She was born in Dunedin, in 1924, and grew up in Oamaru, the child of an itinerant railway engineer father and a mother who yearned to be a writer. Of the five children, the one son was early diagnosed as epileptic, and two of the four daughters drowned in coincidentally similar accidents ten years apart. Janet Frame left the University of Otago for a brief teaching career but spent eight years of her early adulthood in mental hospitals, under the mistaken diagnosis of schizophrenia. She endured a series of electric shock treatments and narrowly escaped a lobotomy. Suffering...
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SOURCE: A review of An Autobiography, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 408-09.
[Bliss is an American writer and critic. In the review below, she considers Frame's An Autobiography "an illuminating tour" of the author's upbringing in New Zealand.]
Contemporary theorists of the autobiography are fairly well agreed that the genre's interest and worth lie less in the "facts" it provides about a historically verifiable life than in the nature of the invented self which the autobiographical text constructs and enacts. The New Zealand writer Janet Frame would probably endorse this critical posture, having adopted it as a compositional strategy for her own autobiography. On the book's opening page she alerts us that the "mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths" contained therein tends always toward a state of being for which "the starting point is myth." Very deliberately, then, her text searches for a satisfying myth of self, and finds it in a celebration of the imagining self as emissary to and from a "Mirror City," within which a reaffirmed "real" world is reflected as and projected into fiction.
Frame's three-volume Autobiography, published in New Zealand in 1989 and now available in the U.S. in a paperback edition, gathers the partial accounts of her life which appeared separately earlier in the eighties. The first volume, To...
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Beston, John B. "A Bibliography of Janet Frame." World Literature Written in English 17, No. 2 (November 1978): 570-85.
Provides a comprehensive bibliography of work by and about Frame, including unpublished dissertations, translations, and dramatizations.
Beston, John B. "A Brief Biography of Janet Frame." World Literature Written in English 17, No. 2 (November 1978): 565-69.
Offers an overview of Frame's life and works up to 1978.
Brown, Kevin. "Wonder Currencies." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4311 (15 November 1983): 1295.
Finds that Frame's novel Owls Do Cry falls short of its potential poignancy.
Buitenhuis, Peter. "Silent Jungle." New York Times Book Review (16 August 1964): 5, 20.
Unfavorable assessment of Scented Gardens for the Blind.
Chisholm, Anne. "Needing to Imagine." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4188 (8 July 1983): 737.
Favorably assesses the first volume of Frame's autobiography, To the Is-Land, claiming that the author writes with "originality and...
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