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CK Stead on Janet Frame's unmistakable quality of genius

Janet Frame in 1954. Photo/ATL 1/2-052772/Colourised by Harry Burgess

Janet Frame’s “dangerous intelligence” allowed her to see, feel and express the mysteries we all experience, wrote CK Stead.

When I try to focus as exactly as I can on Janet Frame as I knew her, what I always think of first is humour – her jokes, and her response to jokes. But these were not just any old “funnies”; they often had to do with language and with perception, and were full of dangerous intelligence. It was as if the whole of human existence was a joke – a black one perpetrated by the gods. Here we were “on Earth”, destined to live (good), but also to die (bad), and with nothing certain “beyond” except extinction, and nothing that alleviated the starkness of this fact except our own inventions. That’s why the inventions – which we could make only because we had the gift of language – were the most important expressions of our humanity.

There was truth and there was fiction, but in a way everything was a fiction, because it seemed we had no choice but to go on behaving as if everything was forever. We had to pretend our social structures enshrined absolutes. We had to pretend that there were universal sanctions, not because we could see that there were “really” (as children say), but because there ought to be, otherwise we were inhabiting a universe without justice.

Janet’s presence, when I first knew her, had the feel of a self-recognising fabrication. It was tentative, an offering, as if she were saying, “This is quite absurd but – under the circumstances – what else can one do?” Later, that presence would become the voice of her fiction – equally tentative, but strange and brilliant, as if she and her readers were required to walk on water, and somehow, by the magic of her language, contrived to do it.

Apart from this darkly comic scepticism, there was, however, another aspect to her personality and her work, not a contradiction, but an addition, which came largely from her periods in mental hospitals and from her memories of childhood. She had no consistent “message”, but she had suffered and seen suffering, and she did not want it to be overlooked. She knew it continued everywhere, mostly unseen, mostly inside people’s heads, and she felt a moral responsibility to acknowledge that it was there. It was this sense of responsibility that produced some of the most vivid recollections and recreations in her writing; it gave purpose and authority to the uses she made of that part of her life-experience which was exceptional, and exceptionally dark.

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It could also sometimes trap her into characterisations that equated misfortune with virtue and luck with vice. Her novels tended to be uncomprehending and unforgiving of those who were comfortable and at home in the world, and this could at times undermine the quality of the fiction, making it seem programmatic.

Janet (by her own account) grew up with a sense of shame, of being unwashed, with bad teeth, badly clothed, poor. But it was a household rich in poetry and stories, and the sense of magic that went with them. Literature transformed reality, redeemed it, even superseded it. So there was a way out for her, an escape through books, first in reading, then in writing. But the shame of poverty remained.

Many others from such backgrounds have simply asserted their talents and been able to leave deprivation behind. She could not – she brought it with her – and the reason for that, I suppose, was something genetic, biochemical, a social incompetence springing from extreme, almost morbid shyness, made worse by incarceration in mental hospitals at the time when a young adult needs to be out in the world learning social skills.

CK Stead with Frame at the 1985 Wellington Writers Festival.

Janet never quite lost the look of someone who was socially “disadvantaged”. Her body language was seldom confident. In public she appeared to be either in retreat, or held against her will. When she faced an unexpected camera, the head and torso seemed to be dragged to face it while the feet and legs were already turning, or tending, away. Yet (one of so many paradoxes) on the very few occasions when she consented to read in public, the effect was sensational. Her voice was light, bell-clear, almost childlike, but compelling. It matched her writing perfectly – a kind of innocence, almost ominously clever.

In private, with family or a few trusted friends, she could be quick, witty, articulate, entertained and entertaining, capable of everything, not excluding malice. She had her bad days, but at her best she sparkled and shone like her own writing.

In addition to the deprivations of her early childhood, there had been a sequence of tragedies visited upon the family that would not have looked out of place among the curses and plagues of the Old Testament. Of the five Frame children, Geordie, the brother, was seriously epileptic. One sister, Myrtle, had a heart seizure and drowned at 16. Ten years later, Isabel, aged 20, died in exactly the same way. Janet fell into suicidal depressions in her late teens and spent most of a decade in mental institutions.

Frame through the ages, from left, 1973; in the 1950s; on the Victoria Embankment, London, in the early 60s.

That left June, the sister on whose companionship and support Janet relied, especially during the latter part of her life, the only one of the group to marry and have children, and now the only survivor. Not a fortunate family, one might say, except that it had produced a writer whose work, even when it was less than perfect in execution, seemed to shine with the unmistakable quality of genius.

As Janet’s work became known in literary circles, certain myths grew up around her. One (which I believed until it was dispelled by Michael King’s biography) was that she had been incarcerated against her will for a period of 10 years. In fact, her medical history was not so simple. There was a certain amount of coming and going. Janet retreated into mental hospitals, at times voluntarily. But there were quite long periods when she was simply locked away, and in danger of remaining there for life. Even worse, there had been the threat of a lobotomy – an operation to sever the frontal lobes of the brain – which would almost certainly have destroyed her personality and her creativity. Her mother had been persuaded to sign the authorisation for this to be done. Only the publication of Janet’s first collection of stories, The Lagoon, and the award of a prize for it, saved her. Someone in the medical fraternity thought to stop at the last moment and ask, “Why are we about to make a major alteration to a brain that can produce prize-winning fiction?”

Author Frank Sargeson took her in, gave her the use of the old army hut in his garden to live and work in, looked after her, encouraged her to believe in herself. In letters and conversations, he liked to dramatise her – “the madwoman in my garden”. But his interest in her was selfless, entirely humane and literary. He treated her exactly as he treated all his friends, and for her, used to brutality from some and cloying concern from others, that can only have been salutary. He was brisk, practical, entertaining; he cooked for her, took her cups of tea, made sure her working routine was protected, made practical arrangements for her, helped her to find a publisher. She, in turn, knitted him “an enormous sweater” and made a patchwork quilt for his bed. They played chess, talked about books (Frank was a mine of gossip about other writers, both in and beyond New Zealand); they wrote comic poems together and Frank told ribald stories.

In 1983; in later life.

This was the period when I knew her best, when she was writing Owls Do Cry, her first novel – the time she writes of with such gratitude in An Angel at My Table, the second volume of her autobiography. In the social bleakness of the 1950s, Frank’s presence was liberating to all of us who were his friends, but how much more so for Janet after years of confinement and hopelessness.

Her behaviour was still erratic. There were episodes when she locked herself away for a day or two and refused to come out. She sometimes took a job and then almost at once handed in her notice. Frank encouraged her to think of herself only as a writer. That was her work, her identity, her raison d’être, her future. She said of him, “Frank Sargeson saved my life.”

But he also grew weary of caring for her. Wanting after more than a year to escape from what he called in one letter “the Janet situation”, and believing in any case that a New Zealand writer must experience Europe, he began to encourage her to go abroad. He helped to gather money for the fare from friends, and to get her a grant from the New Zealand Literary Fund. By March 1957, when she was ready to depart, £125 had been paid for her fare (in a six-berth cabin) and there was a further £300 for her to live on when she got there.

Frank Sargeson.

From London, Janet travelled to Ibiza, off the coast of Spain, where she lived for some time. There was new fiction, her first (perhaps her only) real love affair, and a pregnancy that miscarried. She returned to London and settled, but felt herself failing to cope and admitted herself to Maudsley psychiatric hospital. In 1958 (I was by then a postgraduate student in London), I was asked to talk to Dr RH Cawley, who was to be her most understanding and helpful physician. Cawley wanted to meet someone who had known her in New Zealand.

I soon recognised that he was exceptionally intelligent, but I remember that he surprised me at first by asking had I ever thought Miss Frame was “mad”. I said no, not in the least. A shy person recognises shyness. Here was simply – and by a mile – the worst fellow sufferer one had ever encountered.

Cawley told me that the medical staff considered her their most interesting patient. They had all taken an interest in her, and were divided more or less evenly between those who accepted the New Zealand diagnosis of schizophrenia, and those, like himself, who thought she had no classifiable mental illness but was suffering from what he would later describe as “an existential dilemma – an identity crisis, something very real and alarmingly elusive”. He also told me that he thought the number of ECTs (shock treatment) that had been forced on her in New Zealand was “barbaric”.

The division of opinion about her “illness” is not quite the story she tells in her autobiography, which seems, throughout, motivated by the wish to clear her name of the slur of “madness” – an odd and old-fashioned motivation, it now seems, at a time when we are encouraged (quite properly) to understand that mental health, like physical health, is a spectrum, or scale, up and down which we all move at different times. Janet’s movements up and down were more extreme than is common. There was something unusual about her brain, which (I don’t think it’s too much to say) caused her at times to be partially disabled socially, but which was also no doubt connected to her brilliance and creativity.

After Maudsley, I think there were no further hospital episodes, though her contact with Dr Cawley, and her reliance on his support, whether near at hand or at a distance, continued. She dedicated a number of her novels to him, and also the third volume of her autobiography.

Frame’s home at 56 Eden St, Oamaru. Photo/Alamy

Her life was now focused on her writing, but involved a lot of moving from place to place. She had been a failure as a sea-traveller, confined to bed, and even to the ship’s hospital for most of that first journey to Europe, but once air travel became affordable, she made frequent use of it, moving in and out of New Zealand, spending periods in the US (where she found new admirers, and even rich patrons) and back in England.

In New Zealand, she changed addresses often, usually following sister June and June’s family, but also sometimes in search of silence. She had a Proustian horror of noise, and I remember a visit to one of her many homes, I think it was in Levin and probably in the early 1980s, when she had piled a great deal of furniture into the middle of the sitting room, leaving only a narrow path around it, and had had the front wall of the house covered with hideous tiles meant to shut out the sounds of what was, after all, a very quiet suburban street. Janet never gave the impression of having much sense of style when it came to appearances.

And all the time there was new work being written and published. Owls Do Cry had established her as a brilliant new star of New Zealand writing. She had strong publishers’ backing in England and the US. There was academic interest in her work, and studies of it written. In New Zealand, her books were set in English courses. She was a success. Prizes were won and honours awarded. She must, over the years, have received every conceivable honour New Zealand could confer.

The New Zealand PEN (Society of Authors) wrote at intervals to the Swedish Academy nominating her for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in the late 1990s it was rumoured, I think on good authority, that she was among the very small group whose names were being seriously considered. Last October, it was reported she was again in the running, but I doubt that at that time the picture had significantly changed for her. There had been no new work since 1988, and her chances in Stockholm had receded.

In fact, that flurry of renewed attention, though I’m sure it can’t have been entirely unwelcome, came at a bad time. She was seriously ill. She emailed me, after it had been announced that the South African JM Coetzee had won: “Vampire-fashion I have to have blood transfusions until ‘the end’, and the day I was receiving phone calls about the ignoble prize I was in a hospice learning of my curtailed future.”

The author reading a Listener review while receiving a transfusion.

“Curtailed future” was characteristic of her, as her reply had been when a journalist asked her what she would do with the money if she won: “I’d buy back the railways.” Later, she emailed me a photo of herself in hospital receiving a blood transfusion. She was reading a review I had written for the Listener, holding it so the heading could be seen.

Success didn’t, of course, mean instant and reliable happiness, but I think it steadied her. Her sense of self no longer depended solely on what was happening in her head. It existed partly outside herself, even beyond her control. Perhaps that was the biggest award of all – a secure identity – and yet it was something that, being the person she was, she was partly embarrassed by and wanted at times to escape from. When she was beginning to be widely known, she changed her name. The name on the published work would remain Janet Frame. That was the public person, the one upon whom the honours were conferred. But her name in law became Janet Clutha.

Her work is quirky, original, experimental, structurally discontinuous, very uneven, full of surprises and, at its best, dazzling. Its special genius is in the language – simple, direct, with glittering clarity (something she shares with Katherine Mansfield) and full of brilliant images. She was a poet of prose (she perhaps lacked the sense of form necessary to be a poet of poetry), and I think it was because her primary appeal lay in language rather than in her characters or subject matter that she was, as author Joy Cowley said, “a writers’ writer” – or, anyway, a writer for sophisticated, literary readers.

Janet Frame’s novels have never quite been bestsellers, either in New Zealand or abroad, but she has always earned huge respect. The broader public has been more interested in her life than in the subtleties of her writing. She came from poverty and deprivation, through family disasters and her own suicidal depressions and mental breakdown, to become New Zealand’s best-known author. It was an extraordinary story, and when she wrote it as fact, rather than just quarrying it randomly for the material of fiction, she reached beyond her established readership.

Kerry Fox as Frame in Jane Campion’s 1990 movie An Angel at My Table.

The three-volume autobiography, followed by the Jane Campion movie An Angel at My Table, gave her a much wider, less literary public. That public was interested in her as a phenomenon, a victim of the medical system, a mysteriously brilliant author whose novels serious readers revered, the woman who looked like a housewife of the 1950s and was said to be admired overseas and even a candidate for the Nobel Prize! So, she was at one end of the scale a writer whose work presented a challenge to high-powered literary and academic minds, and at the other a suburban success story, a Dame Edna of Letters.

I find it hard to imagine how a Janet Frame would be seen or would behave if she were just arriving now into a literary scene so commercialised, democratised, homogenised, in which so many emerging writers are so keenly aware of what may and may not be said, and so willing, even eager, to be smoothed out and schooled for the marketplace. There was one British publisher in the early 1960s – Mark Goulden – who tried to teach Janet how to write “books that would sell”. He failed, of course, and she went her own way. We have to be grateful for that.

I think what is essential and durable in her work is a tragicomic vision, bleak in its implications but full of life, courage and humour in its expression. New Zealand has lost an icon, but we have not lost the books she wrote or the letters and records of an exemplary life. The life and the work together are reminders of how unpredictable, uncontainable, unmanageable – how rare and mysterious – real talent can be.

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This article was first published in the February 7, 2004 issue of the New Zealand Listener.