Tom Shakespeare

The Lagoon, Janet Frame’s first volume of short stories, sat on my shelf for years.  Only when I visited Dunedin, her home town, did I discover that it was that book, or rather the prize awarded to it, which saved the author from a lobotomy.

On my last flight back to Europe from New Zealand, I read To the Is-Land, Frame’s account of her upbringing in rural Otago, memorably filmed by Jane Campion in An Angel At My Table.   Her father worked on the railway, while her mother was of the Christadelphian faith.  There were many children, and the family was poor: the book is full of vivid descriptions of rural escapades, school traumas and family mishaps.  It also describes Janet’s emerging literary talent, first expressed via poems in the local paper – she was also very good at maths.

Janet Frame also describes the traumas of her youth: her brother developing epilepsy, and her sister Myrtle drowning in the local swimming pool. Later her sister Isabel was also to drown. Ironically,  the young Janet herself longed to be disabled: “I perceived that in a world where it was admirable to be brave and noble, it was more brave and noble to be writing poems if you were crippled or blind than if you had no disability.  I longed to be struck with paralysis so that I might lie in bed all day or sit all day in a wheelchair, writing stories and poems”.

Frame attended the Dunedin College of Education and the University of Otago, where she trained as a school teacher.  Home life was difficult, due to the conflict between her epileptic brother and her father, who thought George could overcome the seizures if he tried.  Frame’s teaching placement at a Dunedin school was disrupted when she attempted suicide, and she was later confined to a psychiatric ward, and then in Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, where she remained for eight years.

The Lagoon was published in 1951, while Frame was still a patient.  Subsequently she was discharged and lived with another writer, Frank Sargeson, in Auckland.   Her first novel, Owls Do Cry, was published in 1957.  Later, she spent time in Europe.  In London, she had a recurrence of depression and began psychoanalysis.   A steady stream of novels continued to be published through the 1960s and 70s.  Many of them contain accounts of mental illness, or descriptions of eccentrics, dreamers and nonconformists, such as this story published in The New Yorker . She continued to spend time in Europe and also America, where she visited various artists colonies and developed close friendships with other writers and artists.  She returned to New Zealand in 1963, and lived a rather solitary life in various towns on North Island.

When you bring home a shell treasure from the beach, you shake free the sand and the mesh of seaweed and the other crumbled pieces of shell and perhaps even the tiny dead black-eyed inhabitant.  I may have polished this shell of memory with the application of time but only because it is constantly with me, not because I have varnished it for display.

In the 1980s, she produced the three volumes of autobiography for which she is perhaps best known: by this time she was acclaimed as New Zealand’s greatest living writer.  As well as many national awards and honours, she was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize.

Janet Frame died, aged 79, in 2004.   In the wonderful Scribes bookshop in Dunedin, I bought her final collection of poems The Goosebath (so called because her manuscripts piled up in an old tin bath): it was to win her, posthumously, New Zealand’s top poetry prize.

Janet Frame’s  mental illness was never clear: the initial diagnosis of schizophrenia was disproven.  In her memoir she wrote: ”Oh why had they robbed me of my schizophrenia, which had been the answer to all my misgivings about myself?”.  She always felt very different from other people.   She found friendships difficult, and everyday life very stressful.  Interactions with her family were particularly difficult. More recently, it has been claimed that she might have had high-functioning autism, but this suggestion has been rejected by her literary executor.

“I can’t camp here at the end.
I wouldn’t survive
unless returning to a mythical time
I became a tree
toothless with my eyes full of salt spray:
rooted, protesting on the edge of this cliff
–  Let me stay!”