Few writers can claim to have quite literally saved their own lives through writing. In the second volume of her autobiography, Janet Frame describes how she was rescued from the leucotomy then fashionable in New Zealand mental hospitals by attracting the attention of the superintendent. Her first volume of short stories, The Lagoon, had won the Hubert Church Award, the first of many literary prizes which she was to receive in her climb to an international reputation (one, it should be said, which has always flourished in the USA rather than England). Some ten novels and four other volumes of poems and stories later, she is at 60 close to being the grand old woman of New Zealand literature.
The legacy of Frame’s seven years in and out of psychiatric institutions is described in An Angel at My Table: ‘I inhabited a territory of loneliness which I think resembles that place where the dying spend their time before death and from where those who do return living to the world, bring inevitably a unique point of view that is a nightmare, a treasure, and a lifelong possession.’ The novels which she wrote after her final release in 1954 put this ‘treasure’ to good use in describing characters who live on the edge of society, and of the alphabet of human discourse. Often they were drawn almost directly from her experience. The leucotomised Daphne Withers of Owls do cry is based both on her own experience and on the friend Nora whom she describes in the autobiography as lingering on for years in the twilight world of those who did undergo the operation. Frame has described the life of the ‘mad’, and the terrors of the institutions set up to ‘care’ for them, with considerable sympathy, finding in those rooms with no door-handles and the constantly threatened ECT a powerful measure of society’s need to control and impose limits on its members. Her writing can be attuned to the domestic realities of everyday life, but an awareness of the connection between ‘sanity’ and an acceptable language (suggested by the euphemistic names of the institutions – Seacliff, Avondale, Sunnyside) constantly shifts her prose towards the condition of poetry. Many of her novels include poetic interludes. In a parallel fashion, her career has included volumes of poetry, and has shifted from its autobiographical base towards a greater attention to the task of writing as a subject in itself and an attempt to control experience and understand life and (increasingly) death. The later Frame is an internationalist. Her life has become that of the modern writer, with periods spent in Europe, New York, residences at Yaddo and elsewhere. Her most recent novel, Living in the Maniototo, has as many affinities with the work of the Latin American fabulists or with that of Doris Lessing as it does with her own early works.
In the first volume of her autobiography, To the Is-Land, Frame combines an evocative and clear-sighted account of growing up in small-town New Zealand with a self-conscious sub-plot which offers an explanation of how she was to become a psychiatric patient and a writer. She grew up in a poor but close-knit railway family, her overworked Christadelphian mother planting the first seeds of her imaginative life. Childhood was, she suggests, the time of the ‘we’ rather than the troubled ‘I’. But even as a child she began to cultivate a difference from her richer, prettier peers: a difference expressed in the poetry she wrote for the columns of the local newspaper, and in the rhapsodic ‘imaginative’ essays which she produced for her English mistresses. Literary talent became the adolescent’s vocation, though there was still the need for some external confirmation: ‘the question of a disability – Coleridge and Francis Thompson and Edgar Allan Poe had their addiction to opium, Pope his lameness, Cowper his depression, John Clare his insanity.’ Family disasters fed the desire for dark afflictions: her brother’s epilepsy, the death by drowning of a sister, like Browning’s Evelyn Hope ‘sixteen years old when she died’. Life and literature became inextricably tangled for the young girl in a quiet province. Frame is skilled at describing the almost tactile presence of words for the child and adolescent: the physical shock when she encounters her dead sister Myrtle’s name hidden in the opening line of ‘Lycidas’, the violent effect of an obscenity on the family dinner-table. She emphasises (and perhaps protests too much) that literature was not an escape but something to be ‘brought home’; and she pleads for the organicity of literature’s ‘special vision’. The ‘special vision’ was also that, eventually, of madness. Desperately lonely at Teachers’ College (her family could not afford University, but she attended some lectures), she found an eager listener in a young lecturer in psychology, and entered into a Freudian comedy in which she learned to become the ideal subject of analysis, spinning out her fantasies on demand. After a pill-swallowing episode the comedy turned tragic. She was committed for the first time, assigned the label ‘schizophrenic’, and embarked upon her psychiatric career. She had found her ‘disability’, and her ‘treasure’. Frame’s story reverses what is often expected of the relationship between madness and art. The appearance of madness was almost a prerequisite, a product of the dangerous desire to write rather than of any mature creative conflict. Form precedes meaning in a way reminiscent of some of Freud’s later thoughts on psychic mechanisms (a parallel suggested by Frame’s description of analysis as a form of creative writing class), or even his thoughts on cultures in Moses and Monotheism: a society needs victims before it can have a literature.
The process of becoming a writer is thus a more fundamental subject of the autobiography than the experiences Frame had in hospital. Indeed, she refers the reader here to her second novel, Faces in the Water, rather than attempt to repeat her evocation of that world. Her emergence from seven years of suffering (an almost Biblical span) is described in more detail in the second half of An Angel at My Table, subtitled ‘Finding the silk’. The subtitle draws on a complex family of metaphors which Frame has used throughout her career: threads, cocoons, warmth, cloth. In her first novel it is the strand by which, Theseus-like, we seek our way out of the labyrinth. In later elaborations it is the thread from which art is spun, as in the golden blanket which is described in Living in the Maniototo, as well as a cocoon and shelter which can take on dangerous overtones: a metamorphosis of the image suggested by her comment in the autobiography that ‘I had woven myself into a trap, remembering that a trap is also a refuge.’ After her final release, Frame stayed for a period with the Auckland writer Frank Sargeson, who had been one of the first to recognise her skills. In a review of The Lagoon he commented on the ‘piercing flavour of anguish and suffering’ in the stories: the review appears in the present collection of his pieces, which do much to evoke the sense of a developing literature, and literary professionalism, in New Zealand. In the hut in his backyard Frame found, at last, a refuge. Sargeson provided an objective version of thread-gathering, bringing home a box of silk-worms and offering them to her over the following months as a silent poem in the mode of Blake’s ‘Mental Traveller’. The spinning of the cocoons, the cutting free of the silk-worms, their metamorphosis, breeding and death, and the burying of the eggs in the earth, are all suggestive of the writer’s career. An experienced literary sericulturalist, Sargeson fed his pupating novelist with the disability pension which he arranged for her, and with a potent mixture of toleration, discipline, Dostoevsky and Proust.
The autobiographical volumes show just how much of her experience is woven into her writings, often risking a redundancy in which the autobiography repeats the novels. The deaths of her two sisters, for example, are described in her 1972 novel Daughter Buffalo, and the silkworm story also occurs in that work. A number of the episodes mentioned briefly in the autobiography, even some of the seemingly irrelevant detail, can be fleshed out by turning to works of ‘fiction’. Living in the Maniototo can be taken as a commentary on the autobiographical project. Alice Thumb, with all her aliases, is recognisably a version of Janet Frame, and willingly describes herself as a gossip and a ventriloquist, ‘a secret sharer of limited imaginings’. The novel describes the ‘real’ and imaginary adventures of Frame & Co, beginning with Alice Thumb’s inheriting a house from two admiring Californian readers, but becoming increasingly complicated by the entanglement of life and fiction as characters vanish into mid-air, die, return to life, or threaten to take over the story. The narrator’s visible battle with the materials of her life is suggested by a fight over a golden blanket which Alice Thumb describes herself as winning from the other characters. She comments that ‘the price of warmth is often too high for too close a scrutiny of the means of getting it’ – a remark which brings out the dangers of exposing too much of an author’s limited resources of memory and imagination in the kind of autobiography which Frame now offers.
In fact, the effect of writing her own story seems to be liberating rather than restraining for Frame, as if the burden of fiction were removed and she were free to write a linear narrative. This is especially true, as she remarks, of her description of childhood, the time before the thread of narrative becomes tangled. This illusion of simplicity can be allied to her occasional statements to the effect that she lives ‘outside fiction’ in the coldness of reality. Such claims are ingenuous. Frame’s life has always been at the centre of her fiction, the ventriloquist on stage with her puppets. As the title-piece of her most recent collection of short stories suggests, the journey into ‘the human heart’ (or the heart of Frame) is a cliché. The heart in the story is a huge walk-in model, and the author in search of her material is diverted by accidents along the way. For all her courage, Frame has never lived ‘outside’ fiction, but always inside fictions which are both refuge and snare, therapy and pathology. She is skilled at capturing that moment when the silk is cut, our illusions and fantasies violently stripped from us, and a reconstruction of experience demanded. In the autobiography she describes the cold winds which sweep through family life as her parents age and grow ill, and her own subsequent estrangement. She tells of the web of paralysing social fears and dangerous objects or situations (meals, sanitary towels, dances) in which the adolescent is caught, and tells of her attempted escape when she walks out of her teaching job. Meanwhile, beyond the family, the Depression arrives, and the war. But the silk is always respun, the recourse to art irresistible.
The largest danger for Frame’s writing, as apparently for Frame herself, is the tendency to strain towards the literary. It too readily becomes rhapsodic – relentless and even humourless in its pursuit of the imaginative. In the third volume of the autobiography Frame describes her personal encounter with the reality principle. Travelling to England on a literary scholarship, she went to Ibiza, beguiled by the fantastic world of the Mediterranean. She tells of her first sexual experiences there, of becoming pregnant, and miscarrying. In escaping from Ibiza, she fell into another trap: an interlude in Andorra during which she became absorbed into her boarding-house family and engaged to a fellow lodger, an Italian, before escaping again to London, where she set out to ‘discover by objective means whether I had ever suffered from schizophrenia’ and attended the Maudsley Clinic. She seems to have been treated remarkably humanely and was told that she had never been mentally ill: the garment, as she puts it, finally removed.
The remainder of the book describes her years in London: living in a small way in Clapham, Camberwell, Kentish Town, and, more affluently, in Kensington; a season in Suffolk; working in a hospital, a cinema, attending concerts; writing and suffering setbacks and triumphs, meeting literary agents and authors. Like many writers, she found in London’s vastness a sense of freedom and human variety. London became the ‘Mirror City’ of the imagination, a world to which the ‘real’ self is an envoy. Her eventual voyage home was prompted by the death of her father, but the reasons for it were also literary. She wished, she says, to regain the advantages of a country still open to the imagination: ‘Living in New Zealand would be, for me, like living in an age of mythmakers.’
Frame’s story is an important one for New Zealand literature, for reasons which have to do with a good deal more than the fascination of some of her brief portraits – the aesthetic and distant Charles Brasch, Frank Sargeson’s pioneering bluntness and determination. In the struggle to write the cost is high. She has served time for her ambitions, and gained from her struggles a literary treasure which has brought the golden fleece home to the land of the woolmark. At the same time, Frame the word-spinner can seem like that other woman faithful to her vocation, ravelling and unravelling her supply of threads each night in a display of skill designed to disguise her vulnerability. Jason – or Penelope?