Janet Frame is the most widely regarded New Zealand novelist of the 20th century. Born in Dunedin, she spent her childhood in Ōamaru, the setting for her first novel Owls do cry (1957).
While Frame’s work often draws on her experience (as in Faces in the water of 1961, about a patient in a psychiatric hospital), her novels raise deep philosophical questions about how words change reality, so they cannot be read as being biographically ‘about’ their author. Frame’s work examines individual consciousness while also criticising social trends, especially consumerism, and narrow-mindedness.
Janet Frame’s mother, Lottie, wrote poetry almost daily and published it in a variety of newspapers. She also sold poems and songs door-to-door in Ōamaru. In her youth she had worked as a domestic servant for Katherine Mansfield’s grandmother.
Frame’s career began with The lagoon: stories (1951), written during her eight years in psychiatric hospitals. When she left hospital in 1954 she was invited by Frank Sargeson to live in a hut in his garden, where she wrote Owls do cry. Like Katherine Mansfield’s work, Frame’s early fiction was about a family, the Withers, which resembled her own, and was often written from a child’s point of view. Frame quickly established herself as a distinctive and innovative voice in New Zealand literature.
Frame left for England in 1956 and stayed there for seven years. During this time she published two collections of stories, three novels – Faces in the water (1961), The edge of the alphabet (1962), and Scented gardens for the blind (1963) – and wrote Towards another summer, which remained in her papers and was published posthumously in 2007.
New Zealand and the United States
Frame returned to New Zealand in 1963, when her father died, and wrote The adaptable man (1965), A state of siege (1966), The reservoir and other stories (1967) and The rainbirds (1968).
From 1967 Frame spent more time in the United States on fellowships. Two of her novels are entirely or partly set there: Daughter buffalo (1972) and Living in the Maniototo (1979). She moved back to New Zealand in 1972 and moved around various small towns before returning to Dunedin, where she died in 2004. Her last novel, The Carpathians (1989), continued Frame’s distinctively lyrical and densely metaphorical style.