Janet Frame was born on 28 August 1924 at St Helen’s Hospital, Dunedin, to Lottie Clarice Godfrey (who had worked as a maid in the Picton home of Katherine Mansfield’s family, the Beauchamps), and her husband George Samuel Frame, a railway fireman. After their marriage in Wellington in 1916, their first three children, Myrtle Jean, George and Janet Paterson, were born in Dunedin. Two further daughters, Isabel May and Phyllis Mary Evelyn June, were born as the family moved around with George Frame’s railway career.
Early in 1931, the family settled in Ōamaru, Janet’s father’s home town, which Janet later called her ‘kingdom by the sea’.1 Although poor, the family was sustained through the economic depression by Janet’s father’s continuing employment as a railwayman, and her mother’s earnest Christadelphianism and sales of her poetry from door to door.
Late in 1934 Janet was awarded library membership as dux of Ōamaru North School, and she too entered the world of literature, soon attempting to write poetry. She pursued this through largely successful years at Waitaki Girls’ Junior School (1935–36) and Waitaki Girls’ High School (1937–42). Her childhood was darkened by the onset in 1932 of her brother’s epilepsy, which devastated her family’s internal relationships. Her sister Myrtle’s drowning in the Oamaru Tepid Baths on 5 March 1937 added more distress. Her brother George’s increasingly public eccentricity – later in life he regularly wore Highland regalia – created further difficulties and embarrassments that continued through much of Janet’s life, leading eventually to their estrangement.
In March 1943 Frame began two years in Dunedin, where she studied English and French at the University of Otago and attended Dunedin Teachers’ Training College. Shy and socially inept, she struggled to relate to the aunt and uncle she boarded with. In 1945 she taught at Arthur Street School and attended evening university lectures in psychology taught by John Money, the first of a series of significant male mentors in her life. Increasingly dependent on contact with Money, she attempted suicide when he could not keep a formal appointment. Unable to cope with the visit of a school inspector, she abandoned her schoolroom and teaching career.
In October 1945, John Money facilitated Frame’s committal to the psychiatric ward at Dunedin Public Hospital. She was then committed to Seacliff Mental Hospital, north of Dunedin, in November 1945, diagnosed with incipient schizophrenia. Six weeks later she was released to the care of her parents in Ōamaru, but returned to Dunedin to work as a boarding-house maid and to write. During this period, she published her first adult work, a short story called ‘University Entrance’, in the New Zealand Listener. She was also told of her diagnosis as schizophrenic.
Money’s impending departure to the United States devastated Frame. Then her younger sister Isabel drowned in Picton harbour on 17 February 1947 in a sad reprise of the circumstances that caused Myrtle’s death. The two situations produced a crisis for Frame, and she received her first electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatment at Christchurch’s Sunnyside Mental Hospital in 1948. The ECT worsened her symptoms and fears, and led to her recommittal to Seacliff, by her mother, in October of that year.
Frame spent much of the next eight years in Seacliff and in Auckland’s Avondale Hospital, sometimes as a voluntary and sometimes a commited patient. Treatment consisted of numerous bouts of ECT and insulin, and confinement alternated with probationary periods in the care of her parents. Contact with her parents, and with her brother, who had an ongoing rivalry with her father, have been seen as causes of the symptoms that led to her initial hospitalisation. Frame continued to write, and sporadically publish, short fiction and poetry during her time with her parents.
In Avondale Mental Hospital Frame received copies of her first published book, The lagoon: stories (1951), which Money had put together for her from her early writing. In her autobiography, she claimed that winning the Hubert Church Memorial Award for The lagoon in December 1952 persuaded Seacliff’s superintendent to forbid a pre-frontal lobotomy, for which her mother had signed permission. A further period at Seacliff, from December 1954 to March 1955, was her last stay in hospital in New Zealand, after which she returned to Auckland to live with her sister June Gordon and her family.
Frame’s sister June Gordon introduced her to Frank Sargeson, a focus of literary activity on Auckland’s North Shore, in 1955. Almost immediately, Sargeson invited her to live and work in the army hut on his Takapuna property. Frame lived there from March 1955 to July 1956, an interlude which both she and Sargeson found difficult at times. With his encouragement Frame rapidly wrote Owls do cry, which she completed in August 1955. The book was published by Pegasus Press in Christchurch in April 1957 to general acclaim, but was received with dismay in Ōamaru, where it was thought to be too negative and personal.
By this time Frame had been overseas for nine months, first in London, then on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza and later in Andorra. In Ibiza, she felt free of her past. She wrote 50,000 words of a novel, which she never published, and had an affair with an American, George Parlette. In Andorra, she miscarried Parlette’s baby and was briefly engaged to Italian immigrant El Botti Mario, whom she had met at her lodgings. Leaving him and returning to London in May 1957, she then entered the Maudsley Institute, a mental hospital, as a voluntary patient. During her first stay, up to February 1958, she was diagnosed as suffering not from schizophrenia but from the effects of prolonged hospitalisation.
Frame was writing less and less during this period. In May 1958 she changed her name by deed poll to Nene Janet Paterson Clutha. The name change was because of her fear of public recognition, and to acknowledge the significance to her creative imagination of the Clutha River, first encountered during her student holidays in Central Otago.
In September 1958 Frame was readmitted to the Maudsley Institute, under the care of R. H. Cawley, a psychiatrist who was to become her most significant mentor. She later described him as her ‘locksmith’ in freeing her from her past diagnosis. He confirmed that she was suffering from the treatment rather than the illness, and encouraged her to spend the rest of her life as a writer. She began with the account of her hospital years that was to be published as Faces in the water (1961). This was followed by The edge of the alphabet (1962), her first work to be conceived as a novel. By then, facilitated by John Money, German and American editions of Owls do cry had appeared, the latter from George Braziller, who was to prove her most supportive publisher.
In September 1962 Frame completed the manuscript of Scented gardens for the blind (1963), her most baffling novel. Residence in rural East Suffolk from May 1962 gave substance to the last novel of her English sojourn, The adaptable man (1965), a spoof thriller which reveals its murderer within a few pages. By her return to New Zealand in September 1963, following the death of her father, she had also completed stories published by Braziller as The reservoir: stories and sketches (1963) and Snowman, snowman: fables and fantasies (1963).
After dealing briefly with her father’s estate in Ōamaru, Frame returned to Auckland. The award of a Literary Fund scholarship in letters enabled her to finish writing The adaptable man, despite surgery for breast cancer in February and September 1964. In a beach cottage on Waiheke Island from April to September 1964, she completed a novel set there, A state of siege (1966), about a retired secondary-school art teacher. The book was later filmed for cinema by Timothy White and Vincent Ward.
As 1965 Burns Fellow at Otago University, Frame wrote her seventh novel, The rainbirds (1968), and short fiction and poetry, as well as editing The reservoir and other stories (1966). She bought her first house, in Ōpoho, above North-East Valley, Dunedin, and during a further year funded by the university she began her eighth novel, Intensive care (1970), and gathered 160 poems for publication in New York as The pocket mirror (1967). Friendships with Charles Brasch, and James K. Baxter and his wife Jacquie, also flourished during this period.
Early in 1967 Frame began a significant new period in which she alternated brief and sometimes unhappy stretches of time in New Zealand with travel to the United Kingdom and the United States. In the US she wrote at the Yaddo writers’ and artists’ colony in upstate New York and the MacDowell colony in New Hampshire, as well as in New York and Baltimore. She continued to work on Intensive care and her children’s story Mona Minim and the smell of the sun (1969) in this period. Early in 1969 The rainbirds was published in the United States as Yellow flowers in the antipodean room. Further stays at Yaddo and MacDowell in 1969–71 culminated in the novel published as Daughter buffalo (1972).
The solitude and artistic company these colonies offered her were crucial. She made lifelong friendships at both, with John Marquand (whom she met at Yaddo in 1967) and his wife Sue, and with the Californian painter Bill Brown (whom she met at the MacDowell colony in 1969) and his partner Paul Wonner. She later described Brown as the ‘chief experience of my life’.2
During the 1970s Frame moved restlessly from one small New Zealand town to another, in search of solitude and refuge from the persistent noise of suburban New Zealand. She moved to Dunedin from January to July 1972, and then to Auckland’s Whangaparāoa Peninsula until January 1975. She had a break in the first six months of 1974 as Katherine Mansfield Fellow at Menton in France, then returned to Whangaparāoa.
Frame lived in Glenfield in Auckland early in 1975, and then followed her sister and her family to the Taranaki township of Stratford in July 1976, joining them again in Whanganui by the end of 1979. She also worked on more fiction and attended a postcolonial literature conference at the University of Hawaii in October 1977 and the PEN congress in Sydney in December that year. In May the following year, she travelled to Otago University to be awarded an honorary Doctorate in Letters. Nine months later, after a long and difficult gestation, her 10th novel, Living in the Maniototo (1979) was completed. The book received acclaim as her comic masterpiece when published in the United States.
The writing of Frame’s late masterwork, her three-volume autobiography, began in Whanganui in 1981 with To the is-land (1982), followed by a second volume, An angel at my table (1984). Volume three, The envoy from mirror city (1985), followed, completing a long project in which Frame successfully expunged the suggestions of mental illness from her life by revealing the evidence of misdiagnosis. The autobiography’s narrative was affirmed in Jane Campion’s film An angel at my table (1990).
In August 1983 To the is-land received the Wattie Book of the Year Award, and in October 1983 Frame was invested as CBE. A selection of her stories was published by Victoria University Press as You are now entering the human heart (1983). By the end of that year she had moved to Levin, the setting of her final novel The Carpathians (1988). In June 1984, she was inaugural winner of the Turnovsky Prize for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, and An angel at my table won the New Zealand Book Award for non-fiction. From February to April 1987 she was the Frank Sargeson Fellow in Auckland. In 1989 The Carpathians won another New Zealand Book Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. In 1990 Frame was invested with the Order of New Zealand.
Although Frame’s three-volume autobiography brought her a wider audience, her stature as a writer of fiction had long been recognised, both overseas and among followers in New Zealand. For more than 20 years Frame had been annually nominated by PEN (the New Zealand Society of Authors) for the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was shortlisted twice, the second time in 2003, the year she was diagnosed with leukaemia. That year, along with Hone Tuwhare and her biographer Michael King, Frame was the recipient of an inaugural Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement.
From March 1988, Frame had lived in an isolated farmhouse near Shannon, not far from Levin, but in December 1989, concerned about her health, she moved to Palmerston North. In June the following year she suffered a stroke, and in March 1992 was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Michael King suggested in his biography of Frame that the successful operation for cancer enabled her to confront and overcome the fear of death that had driven her writing, and that this explained the subsequent decline in her writing activities. Late in 1995, again following her sister and family, Frame moved to Avondale in Auckland. She moved to St Clair in South Dunedin in 1997 and, in April 1999, to St Kilda.
Janet Frame died in Dunedin on 29 January 2004. A collection of poems, The goose bath (2006), and a novel first written in 1963, Towards another summer (2007), were published posthumously.