Real Life

Janet Frame’s private life

The Janet Frame of Pamela Gordon's memory is so far removed from the public myth of the shy, mad and reclusive writer, it's enough to make you laugh. or, in Pamela's case, feel frustrated and, at times,

The Janet Frame of Pamela Gordon’s memory is so far removed from the public myth of the shy, mad and reclusive writer, it’s enough to make you laugh. Or, in Pamela’s case, feel frustrated and, at times, angry.

“She was a lovely, hilarious, amazing auntie,” Pamela says.

“She was a genius, but in order to be close to her, you had to forget that. You couldn’t be superficial or insist on talking about her work. She wanted you to be normal with her.”

Pamela, the daughter of Janet’s youngest sister June and literary executor of the writer’s estate, was a baby when Janet moved to Auckland in 1954. During her 15 months there, she famously penned her debut novel, owls Do Cry, while living in Frank Sargeson’s old army hut in Takapuna.

“What people don’t know is that Frank looked for her. He’d heard about her, she was already quite well-known, so he sought her out,” Pamela says.

“When she came up I was a little baby, the youngest of three. Every weekend she’d stay with our family and help mum with the little children. I think we all started to get close then. After that she went overseas.”

During Janet’s time in Spain and England, she was thoroughly assessed by specialists and finally freed from the misdiagnosis of schizophrenia, which had seen her locked up at Seacliff Mental Hospital, outside Dunedin.

During her years abroad, she regularly wrote to her niece and sent books, such as Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince.

“The key message in The Little Prince is not to judge by appearances, but to judge by what is at the heart. Those really important philosophies of life made a difference to me.”

And those values served to maintain a friendship with Janet into adulthood.

“I was nine when she came back,” Pamela continues. “She stayed in a caravan on our backyard. We loved going to zoos together, it was something we did right through our lives.

“When she came back I knew she was famous. Her books had been reviewed in Time magazine and everyone was talking about her. I was so proud, but I wasn’t allowed to boast.

“Her friends had to be faithful, loyal and discreet. Until she died, many people didn’t even know I was related to her, even though she was a constant in my life.

“She and my mother had worked out a way of protecting her from the glare of publicity because she was so private.

But it was nothing to do with a psychological inability to deal with it – it was a philosophical stand. She was saying, ‘My life is not your business. My work is your business, but not my life.'”

The latest work, Janet Frame: In Her own Words, is the first collection of Janet’s published short non-fiction and features never-seen-before material, including letters, essays, speeches and interviews.

The book has two New Zealand Woman’s Weekly interviews with the writer, where she said she liked reading the magazine, especially the useful “hints”, offers fresh insights into her work and world.

Co-edited by Pamela and her partner (and fellow executor) Denis Harold, Pamela says the book serves as Janet’s manifesto.

“So much has been written about her in the third person. But this is her own voice.”

Part of adding to the legacy has involved bringing new works to light, including collections of poetry, short stories and the posthumous novel, Towards Another Summer (2007).

Janet originally didn’t want to burden her niece with being her literary executor, but when Pamela showed interest, her aunt began training her up.

“It’s an all-consuming role. There are marvellous moments and really hard ones. I think of Lynn Anderson’s song I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. If you look at the meaning behind that, it’s about taking the rain with the sunshine,” says Pamela.

“I get attacked. I’ve been accused of revisionism. We’ve had slander, betrayal, deceit, people trying to corrupt or co-opt her legacy for financial gain. I have a couple of stalkers. It’s shocked me that I’m famous enough to get this – but it’s not me, it’s her.

“She once sent me a postcard of a picture of a rose garden and on the back she wrote, ‘Dear Pamela, I beg your pardon, whoever promised you a rose garden,’- and flipped the whole song around, which shows her genius and her ability to see around the other side of the English language.”

Part of Pamela’s role since Janet’s death in January 2004 has been protecting her legacy and dispelling the myths of the quiet loner whose life was more interesting than her work.

“She was bold. She met the queen. And she could be timid, but only because she had an enormous ability to

read people, so she could tell if she was being patronised or not. It can be difficult to know too much.”

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