Janet Frame: An Angel at My Table from the archives

The reclusive Janet Frame was hailed overseas as one of the world’s finest prose writers.
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She remains to this day one of the greatest writers New Zealand has ever produced, but Janet Frame’s struggle with mental illness, misdiagnoses and the fishbowl that was New Zealand society in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s made her the stuff of legend.

The Weekly caught up with the reclusive author in 1985 just months after the final instalment of her autobiography was released. Her final novel, The Carpathians, was published in 1988, and in 1990, Janet was appointed to the Order of New Zealand, the nation’s highest honour. She passed away in January 2004, aged 79, from leukaemia.

Some critics have implied that Janet Frame’s genius might be a close respectable cousin of madness. But Janet says she has never been in the world of insanity. Instead she suffered from a more common affliction… Tony Reid talks to NZ’s greatest living writer.

Just a few years ago, New Zealand’s greatest living writer, Janet Frame, began to fight back against “brutal misunderstandings”. She used her only powerful weapon, words, and brilliantly wielded it to prove “that at least I am a human being”.

Three books of autobiography later, Janet Frame has at last managed to demolish those aspects of her strange legend that had so upset her. The third volume of her story, The Envoy from Mirror City, completes the explanation of her life. Indeed, we now know more about her than about any other New Zealand writer.

That is a startling change. When I visited her home in Wanganui during 1983 (she lives in Levin now), the neighbours knew only that she was an intensely private person who also wrote books. When Janet shopped at the local supermarket, the checkout girl teased her.

“How’s the author today?” she grinned and the shy reclusive novelist would blush and leave as quickly as possible.

Very few Wanganui citizens realised that this seemingly ordinary, solitary woman who lived in a very ordinary house had been hailed overseas as one of the world’s finest prose writers.

Nor did they know that influential critics placed her in a rarer, even more awesome category – a genius with almost mystical powers to describe the dreams, terrors and perceptions of the spiritual existence “at the edge of the alphabet”.

Imaginative readers are frightened because Janet Frame’s books take them to a place which is both unknown and instantly recognisable – the dangerous underside of our own, everyday existence.

She has described it as “the bars of actual darkness not perceived by the naked eye” and the small dusty room “two inches behind the eyes which might have been shut for 40 years”.

It was known she had spent many years in a mental hospital and had endured more than 200 electric shock treatments. She had avoided a leucotomy only when a doctor noticed the publication of her first book. And some of those marvellous early fictions had explored the theme of insanity.

Some critics had therefore eagerly linked genius with mental illness – the Janet Frame reputation contained an implication that her dazzling brilliance might be a close, respectable cousin of madness.

“All these myths,” she sighed. “I have never been in the world of insanity. I have observed insanity and I know what it is like. Something definite like measles. I can recognise it and I can prove that it never had anything to do with me.”

Instead, she suffered from a different affliction which has no precise name. Unhappiness is common to most of us. In its more extreme forms, it can sap will and move on towards desperation. It often invades the especially sensitive and can be mistaken by others as a sign of mental disease.

The extreme sensitivity of a shy young woman had been complicated by her inability to organise the basics of life – lodgings, job, supportive friendships and other sustaining patterns which would allow her to write.

So she ended up in a mental hospital and languished there without proper assessment. Her autobiographies emphasise that the disturbed central characters in the early books are not some fictional version of Janet Frame. They are a mixture of imagination and people she observed in hospital.

“You saw people just looking – gazing upwards. And you’d look along their direction. I thought that if I looked hard enough, I might see what they were staring at.”

This is what she accomplished with such frightening power. However, the personal price was high. More than 20 years later – and after her later novels had moved to sardonic descriptions of suburban life – the imposed image still tended to suck her back.

But the three-volume autobiographical series has finally educated her cult following. Why has Janet Frame managed to both frankly discuss the struggle towards social stability and also emerge as a likeable, humorous lady with a great appetite for life?

“I have grown up quite a lot,” she told me in Wanganui. “Yes, but I am still shy. But although it is not meant to be a nice thing to say, I like my own company. However, I take pleasure in the outside world and I venture out a great deal. In the right company, I can be very bold.”

Arts philanthropist Fred Turnovsky and Janet at an award ceremony in 1984.

True, she still regarded all intrusions on her work as painful. No distraction should fall between the author and her imagination – those journeys to what she calls “Mirror City” and the treasure it provides for shaping in to words.

Therefore the door remained locked. And she hated the sound of motormowers, stereos, televisions and radios.

“If I had the money, I would move to a quieter place.”

Out of New Zealand? She once wrote that the tone of our national life reminded her of a one-storey building. That sorely required upper floor was missing.

“Did I?” she giggled. “Did I really? No, I think you made that up. But we do… we do exclude the basement!

“Oh, but should I say that? It is like saying that I don’t like dogs (which I don’t) or children (which I don’t much) or flowers (which I don’t as much as the characters in my books). If you say those things there could…” she paused, widened her eyes, and wobbled her head with melodrama. “There could be certain repercussions.”

That playful side of Janet Frame is also present in The Envoy from Mirror City. It describes the period of her life after a Literary Fund grant in 1956 allowed her to travel to Europe.

“Because I had been shut off, my growing-up was very interrupted,” she told me. “At the age of 34, it was as if I was 10 years younger. I was quite without social experience and, if I knew anything, it was only through intuition.”

She arrives in London as an innocent with utterly fresh perceptions, allowing her to respond to the city with a lovely, girlish naivety.

The autobiography then moves to the Balearic Islands and provides a striking picture of a love affair with this environment and, later, with a man who lives within it.

Indeed, her innocence and breathless eagerness bring the story close to True Romance territory. Janet Frame admits as much as she laughs to herself. But she also feels “the satisfaction of having yet another first experience”.

Janet fell in love with London in the early 1960s.

The inevitable seduction scene is described with a detailed, childlike candour that only prudes could find more shocking than sweet.

She believes she is pregnant and when Bernard says, “that would be terrible”, Janet feels “my life like the grass resuming its place… my longing and love and pain for Bernard has gone… his cold words.”

Typically, she reaches back to childhood for a solution to the adult problem of pregnancy.

In those far off days, her eight-year-old friend had said that if Hollywood stars didn’t want their babies they drank gin, ate quinine or ran up and down mountains.

Although she tries all this advice, Janet eventually has the miscarriage through a purely accidental cause.

Then a “tall, handsome” villager falls in love with her and then she’s again in “the world of men, women, sex, love”. She does not accept El Vici’s ring. But nor does she reject him. Eventually, the author again finds herself “assuming my most accustomed role, that of the passive person whose life is being planned for her”.

Emotionally, she is back in hospital. So she organises an escape back to London. But if all this rather juvenile romance is astonishing in terms of Janet Frame’s reputation, the happenings of London bring readers back to more familiar surroundings.

New Zealand doctors had diagnosed schizophrenia. Now, she decides it is time for action on all important fronts. Find a job. Get a literary agent. Buy an illustrated encyclopedia of sex. Arrange for psychiatric assessment at the Maudsley hospital.

At the Maudsley, she is accepted as a patient and psychiatrists eventually decide she has never suffered from schizophrenia. Their assessment produces panic. The former classification has been a protection, an excuse for not coping. Now she can never return to it “for help”.

Janet Frame insists that she deliberately talked of suicidal feelings as a “shortcut”, allowing her entrance to the Maudsley and then top-class examination which might loosen the label of schizophrenia. She also says she again needed to be hospitalised because emergence from that pigeonhole left her too frightened to cope.

Janet was full of fun and laughter in 1983.

Readers can only wonder if this provides a total explanation. But it is certainly true that further therapy convinced Janet that she did not need to fear the autonomy of adulthood and “with myself as myself I again began my writing career”.

This became the most productive period of her life. She had at last escaped what she once called “the golden cymbals of judgement, the summoning of the torturers”.

And now she had her photograph in the top Fleet Street newspapers – “I’m in London, I’m here, I’m secret, I’m in the reviews and some have even compared me to Virginia Woolf!”

In some ways, it is a shame that Janet Frame is returning to the demands of Mirror City, and therefore there will be no autobiography of recent years. A description of this more settled period might have further confounded the die-hard Frame Cult followers by emphasising that the rest of her life has featured neither terrible poverty, total solitude nor a friendless existence obsessionally devoted to Mirror City.

In fact, she has travelled widely, sailed with friends in the Bahamas, lived in American artists’ colonies, addressed writers’ conferences and read her work in a men’s prison.

These days, she is a friendly, reserved but assured presence – just like the protagonist at the end of the story of her life.

“I do enjoy happiness,” she told me. “I’m a great lover of fun and laughter. I wish you would all believe me. Please do!”

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