Famous Authors Series – Janet Frame

Escaping by a whisker a life that would have been curbed by a drastic psychiatric intervention is one experience that defines the subject of today’s post ‘Famous Authors Series – Janet Frame’.

janet frame with her niece and literary executor for post Famous Authors Series – Janet Frame
Janet Frame with her niece

Janet Frame (28 August 1924 – 29 January 2004) was born in the South Island city of Dunedin in New Zealand.

With her unruly mop of hair, she could have been talking of herself through the character Winnie in her book of short stories, The Lagoon and Other Stories. Winnie thinks how nice it would be ‘to say bother and brush your hair out of your eyes’.

Saved by a book

I seldom use the word ‘literally’, because people so often misuse it. However, Frame’s life – or the life as she knew it at least – was literally saved by that same collection of short stories. Her doctors had misdiagnosed her with schizophrenia and scheduled her for a lobotomy.

How did she escape the jaws of psychiatric intervention that would have irrevocably changed the Janet Frame the world knows?

Her doctors cancelled the lobotomy when she received the Hubert Church Memorial Award. At the time, this was one of New Zealand’s most prestigious literary prizes. “It’s no wonder that I value writing as a way of life when it actually saved my life,” she said.

Nowadays, when we treat mental illness with more compassion (though possibly still with little understanding), we can only imagine the shame and stigma of having a diagnosis of mental illness during the 1950s and 1960s.

Connection to Katherine Mansfield’s family

Frame’s mother Lottie once served as a housemaid to Katherine Mansfield‘s family. Interesting, considering that Frame grew up wanting to be a poet and ended up being a poet and author.

She was the third of five children of Scottish-New Zealand working-class parents. Her entry into the world was an historic moment, as New Zealand’s first female medical graduate delivered her.

Tragedy

Why is it that so many writers and artists experience sad or tragic situations in their lives? I guess the answer is, no one is immune. Frame certainly wasn’t. Two of her adolescent sisters, Myrtle and Isabel, drowned in separate incidents, and her brother George suffered epileptic fits. Frame herself experienced frequent episodes of anxiety and depression, spending several years in psychiatric hospitals.

Not a pudding

Frame is popularly considered reclusive and strange. Even less flattering, her struggles in the mental health system see her continuing to be labelled with some psychological illness or other. Her niece, Pamela Gordon, refutes this in an interview in the Australian Women’s Weekly. She describes her aunt as a perfectly lucid and lovely woman who simply valued her personal privacy.

In Michael King’s 2001 biography of Janet Frame, Wrestling with the Angel, she responds to suggestions that she ‘go out and mix’ with a scornful thought: ‘as if I were a pudding’.

Writings of Janet Frame

Much of Frame’s writing explores her childhood and psychiatric hospitalisation, including her award-winning autobiography An Angel at My Table. Jane Campion adapted this work into a movie.

Owls Do Cry was her first novel. She wrote and published – in her lifetime or posthumously – 12 novels, four more short story collections and two poetry volumes. Her works are available in 25 languages. Frame portrayed a society that refused to come to terms with disorder, irrationality and madness. Perhaps rebelliously, her home appeared to be a metaphor for this disorder (see article referred to below).

Further reading

There’s a lovely article, ‘In Search of Janet Frame’, by filmmaker Jane Campion about her meetings with Janet Frame. You can read it here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jan/19/fiction5

Also, check out the website of her niece and literary executor.

Writing a novel is not merely going on a shopping expedition across the border to an unreal land: it is hours and years spent in the factories, the streets, the cathedrals of the imagination

Janet Frame

Acknowledgements

Janet Frame, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janet_Frame, Accessed 15 Jan. 21

Janet Frame New Zealand Writer, ‘Britannica’, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Janet-Frame, Accessed 15 Jan. 21

Janet Frame’s Private Life, 22 December 2011, in ‘The Australian Women’s Weekly’ on ‘Now to Love’, https://www.nowtolove.co.nz/news/real-life/janet-frames-private-life-6155, Accessed 15 Jan. 21

Image: Radio New Zealand, https://www.ngataonga.org.nz/set/item/564 & Book Depository

Hope you’ve enjoyed this post ‘Famous Authors Series – Janet Frame’.


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