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Janet (Paterson) Frame Biography

Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Dunedin, 1924. Education: Oamaru North School; Waitaki Girls' High School; University of Otago Teachers Training College, Dunedin. Awards: Hubert Church Prose award, 1952, 1964, 1974; New Zealand Literary Fund award, 1960; New Zealand Scholarship in Letters, 1964, and Award for Achievement, 1969; University of Otago Robert Burns fellowship, 1965; Buckland Literary award 1967; James Wattie award, 1983, 1985; Commonwealth Writers prize, 1989. D. Litt.: University of Otago, 1978. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1983.



Owls Do Cry. Christchurch, Pegasus Press, 1957; New York, Braziller, 1960; London, W.H. Allen, 1961.

Faces in the Water. Christchurch, Pegasus Press, and New York, Braziller, 1961; London, W.H. Allen, 1962.

The Edge of the Alphabet. Christchurch, Pegasus Press, New York, Braziller, and London, W.H. Allen, 1962.

Scented Gardens for the Blind. Christchurch, Pegasus Press, andLondon, W.H. Allen, 1963; New York, Braziller, 1964.

The Adaptable Man. Christchurch, Pegasus Press, New York, Braziller, and London, W.H. Allen, 1965.

A State of Siege. New York, Braziller, 1966; London, W.H. Allen, 1967.

The Rainbirds. London, W.H. Allen, 1968; as Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room, New York, Braziller, 1969.

Intensive Care. New York, Braziller, 1970; London, W.H. Allen, 1971.

Daughter Buffalo. New York, Braziller, 1972; London, W.H. Allen, 1973.

Living in the Maniototo. New York, Braziller, 1979; London, Women'sPress, 1981.

The Carpathians. London, Bloomsbury, and New York, Braziller, 1988.

Short Stories

The Lagoon: Stories. Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1952; revised edition, as The Lagoon and Other Stories, 1961; London, Bloomsbury, 1991.

The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches. New York, Braziller, 1963.

Snowman, Snowman: Fables and Fantasies. New York, Braziller, 1963.

The Reservoir and Other Stories. Christchurch, Pegasus Press, andLondon, W.H. Allen, 1966.

You Are Now Entering the Human Heart. Wellington, VictoriaUniversity Press, 1983; London, Women's Press, 1984.


The Pocket Mirror. New York, Braziller, and London, W.H. Allen, 1967.


Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun (for children). New York, Braziller, 1969.

An Autobiography. Auckland, Century Hutchinson, 1989; London, Women's Press, 1990; New York, Braziller, 1991.

To the Is-Land. New York, Braziller, 1982; London, Women'sPress, 1983.

An Angel at My Table. Auckland, Hutchinson, New York, Braziller, and London, Women's Press, 1984.

The Envoy from Mirror City. Auckland, Hutchinson, New York, Braziller, and London, Women's Press, 1985.

The Inward Sun: Celebrating the Life and Work of Janet Frame, selected and edited by Elizabeth Alley. Wellington, New Zealand, Daphne Brasell Associates Press, 1994.

The Janet Frame Reader, edited by Carole Ferrier. London, Women'sPress, 1995.


Film Adaptations:

An Angel at My Table, 1991.


By John Beston, in World Literature Written in English (Arlington, Texas), November 1978.

Critical Studies:

An Inward Sun: The Novels of Janet Frame, Wellington, New Zealand University Press, 1971, and Janet Frame, Boston, Twayne, 1977, both by Patrick Evans; Bird, Hawk, Bogie: Essays on Janet Frame edited by Jeanne Delbaere, Aarhus, Denmark, Dangaroo Press, 1978; Janet Frame by Margaret Dalziel, Wellington, Oxford University Press, 1981; The Ring of Fire: Essays on Janet Frame edited by Jeanne Delbaere, Sydney, Dangaroo Press, 1992; I Have What I Gave: The Fiction of Janet Frame by Judith Dell Panny, New York, Braziller, 1993; Janet Frame: Subversive Fictions by Gina Mercer. St. Lucia, Queensland, University of Queensland Press, 1994; Critical Spaces: Margaret Laurence and Janet Frame by Lorna M. Irvine. Columbia, South Carolina, Camden House, 1995; Gendered Reistance: The Autobiographies of Simone De Beauvoir, Maya Angelou, Janet Frame and Marguerite Duras by Valerie Baisnee. Atlanta, Rodopi, 1997; Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame by Michael King. Washington, D.C., Counterpoint, 2000.

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"All dreams," Janet Frame writes in her 1970 novel Intensive Care, "lead back to the nightmare garden." And all nightmares lead circuitously into truth. In all her novels, the looming threat of disorder, violent and disrupting, persistently attracts those that it frightens, for it proves more fertile, more imaginatively stimulating, more genuine, and more real than the too-familiar world of daily normality. The tension between safety and danger recurs as her characters—voyaging into strange geographies (like the epileptic Toby Withers in The Edge of the Alphabet), or madness (like Daphne in Owls Do Cry, or Istina Navet in Faces in the Water), or other people's identities (like Ed Glace in Scented Gardens for the Blind), or mirrors (like Vic in The Adaptable Man), or death (like Godfrey Rainbird in The Rainbirds)—discover both the mental deliberation that the safe state, in oxymoronic creativity, engenders, and the disembodying that danger contrives. The opening of Faces in the Water demonstrates the author's thematic density and sardonic touch:

They have said that we owe allegiance to Safety, that he is our Red-Cross God who will provide us with ointment and … remove the foreign ideas, the glass beads of fantasy, the bent hair-pins of unreason embedded in our minds. On all the doors which lead to and from the world they have posted warning notices and lists of safety measures to be taken in extreme emergency …. Never sleep in the snow. Hide the scissors. Beware of strangers …. But for the final day … they have no slogan. The streets throng with people who panic, looking to the left and the right, covering the scissors, sucking poison from a wound they cannot find, judging their time from the sun's position in the sky when the sun itself has melted and trickles down the ridges of darkness into the hollows of evaporated seas. Nightmares and madness, the education in the nature of Apocalypse and survival, become not mere metaphors of sanity, but direct training in the reactivation of the mind's perceiving eyes.

By "shipwrecking" oneself in mad geographies, however (Frame speaks in one novel of "an affliction of dream called Overseas"—as in another she observes that OUT is in man, is what he fears, "like the sea"), one places oneself on "the edge of the alphabet," in possession perhaps of insight, but no longer capable of communicating with the people who stay within regulated boundaries. Malfred Signal, in Frame's weakest novel, A State of Siege, for example, leaves her old self to live on an island and to find the perspectives of "the room two inches behind the eyes." What she discovers, when the elements besiege her, is fear, but all she can do then is silently utter the strange new language that she clutches, alone, into seacalm and death. Like Ed Glace in Scented Gardens, who researches the history of the surname Strang and (discovering strong, Strange, and Danger along the way) wonders if people are merely anagrams, Malfred lives in a mad mirror world of intensely focused perception that anagrammatic Joycean punning-distorting day-to-day language—tries to render. As Owls Do Cry had earlier specified, in the shallow suburban character of Chicks, the "safe" world deals in language, too, as a defence against upset, hiding in the familiarity of conventional clichés and tired similes. What the brilliant punning passages of The Rainbirds show is what the title poem of The Pocket Mirror implies: that convention will not show ordinary men the "bar of darkness" that are optically contained within the "facts of light"; "To undeceive the sight a detached instrument like a mirror is necessary." Or will her narratives. But even that vantage point is fraught with deceit. Superstition, like convention, and Platonic forms, like safe order, can all interfere with true interpenetration with "actuality." And to find the live language—the "death-free zone" of Thora Pattern, in Edge of the Alphabet—as a novelist inevitably dealing with day-to-day words becomes an increasingly difficult task the stronger the visionary sense of the individual mind on its own. Turnlung, the aging New Zealand writer in New York, in Daughter Buffalo, finds the challenge particularly acute; his exile to "a country of death" brings him into bizarrely creative contact with a young doctor, but in the epilogue to the story, he wonders if he has dreamed everything. What matters, as Turnlung puts it, is that "I have what I gave." To conceive is to create some kind of reality, however unconventional the act, the result, and the language of rendering the experience may seem.

There are passages in France that are reminiscent of Doris Lessing—like the apocalyptic scenes of Scented Gardens and Intensive Care, the one anticipating the atomic destruction of Britain and the birth of a new language, the other observing the destruction of animals in Waipori City (the computerized enactment of the Human Delineation Act which will identify the strong normal law-abiding "humans" and methodically, prophylactically, eliminate the rest), and the ironic intensification of a vegetable human consciousness. In the earlier novel, particularly, the author emphasizes the relationship between the "safety dance of speech" and a kind of Coleridgean death-in-life, and that between winter (the gardenless season) and madness, life-in-death,"Open Day in the factory of the mind." The Rainbirds, the writer's gentlest, most comic (however hauntingly, macabrely, relentlessly discommoding) book, takes up the metaphor in its story of a man pronounced dead after a car accident. Though Godfrey Rainbird lives, the official pronouncement, the conventional language, the public utterance, takes precedence over the individual spiritual actuality, depriving him of his job, his children, public acceptance, and so on. Indeed, he only becomes acceptable when he has "died" a second time, when his story is sufficiently distanced into legend and into the past to become a tourist attraction. But if you visit the grave in the winter, Frame adds, you must create the summer flowers within yourself. Summer gardens are openly available even to the spiritually blind; winter gardens are not. Her quiet acceptance, however, of that (mad, winter) power to change seasons within the mind expresses her most optimistic regard of humanity. And as Living in the Maniototo reaffirms, there is an ordering potentiality in the recognition of any person's several selves.

Intensive Care more broodingly evokes the same theme and provokingly points out the difference between the hospitalization of the body and the intensive care required to keep the mind truly alive. When the second world war is long over and the computer mentality takes over after the next impersonal War, all fructifying abnormality seems doomed; Deciding Day will destroy that which is not named human. Through the sharp memory of the supposedly dull Milly Galbraith, who is one of the few to appreciate an ancient surviving pear-tree, and the damningly conciliatory (and then expiatory) attitudes of Colin Monk, who goes along with the system, valuing Milly too late to save her, the apocalyptic days of Waipori City are told. Behind them both looms the mythical presence of Colin's twin Sandy, the Reconstructured Man, made of metal and transplanted part, who is also the Rekinstruckdead Man, a promise of technological finesse and an accompanying sacrifice of man's animal warmth and spiritual being. Milly is exterminated; Sandy is myth; Colin, declared human, breathes:

I was safe, I had won.

I had lost. I began losing the first day, when the news of the Act came to me and I signed the oath of agreement. Why of course, I said, I'll do anything you ask, naturally, it's the only way, the only solution, as I see it, to an impossible situation, as if situations needed solving, I mean, looked at objectively, as it must be seen to be ….

The skimming words and phrases that need leave no footprints; one might never have been there, but one had spoken; and the black water lay undisturbed beneath the ice; and not a blade of grass quivered or a dead leaf whispered; a race of words had lived and died and left no relic of their civilization.

As it must be seen to be, looked at objectively ….

The ironies multiply around each other. Language reasserts its fluid focus; the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Vegetation plants new pear trees on the Livingstone estate; the computer (not having been programmed for nostalgia) fails to account for the new enthusiasm for old abnormalities; and the Sleep Days cannot erase the time of the fires from the mind of Colin Monk. The mind survives. That her commitment to the spiritual independence of such perception is made so provocative is a tribute to Frame's arresting skill with images. She has an uncanny ability to arouse the diverse sensibilities of shifting moods and to entangle in language the wordless truths of her inner eye.

Language (always a motif in these works) is the central subject of the later novels Living in the Maniototo, with its artificial California setting, and the futuristic The Carpathians. The characters here contend not so much with a world outside themselves as with the kinds of world their imaginations create. Trained in words, they construct fantasies with the power of reality, often mistakenly accepting these ostensible "realities" as fixed truths. While most characters see only what they expect, some are given the gift of transcending their own verbal limitations. Understanding the processes of language is essential. Readers of the later novels are guided into limited insights: once the authoritarianism of their conventional expectations is exposed, they are offered a chance to glimpse alternative possibilities—within themselves, and consequently also in the "ordinary" world.

—W.H. New

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