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."