Janet Frame

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Janet Paterson Frame ONZ, CBE, (August 28, 1924 - January 29, 2004), a New Zealand author, wrote eleven novels, four collections of short stories, a book of poetry, a children's book, and a three-volume autobiography.

Famous for both her prose and her life story—she escaped lobotomy as a falsely diagnosed mental patient only by receiving a literary prize just in time—she became a very private person in later life. This relates to her 1958 decision to change her name by deed poll to Nene Janet Paterson Clutha. Frank Sargeson praised her prose as possessing a "frightening clarity of perception," though her novels eschewed traditional New Zealand literary realism for a more magical style.[1]

Life overview

Early life

Born in Dunedin, New Zealand, she was one of five children of a railway worker. Dr. Emily Hancock Siedeberg, New Zealand's first female medical graduate, delivered her at St. Helens Hospital, Dunedin. Frame grew up in Oamaru (which she later fictionalized as "Waimaru"), and attended Oamaru North School and Waitaki Girls' High School. Two of her three sisters drowned in separate incidents at a young age, and her only brother suffered from epilepsy. Only he and his sister, June, of the five children, went on to marry and have families.

In 1943, Frame enrolled at Dunedin Teachers' College, studying English, French, and psychology at the adjacent University of Otago.

In 1947, while doing student-teaching in Dunedin, Frame walked out of the classroom. She had no wish to return to teaching and instead wanted to devote her life to literature. She promised to supply the authorities with a medical certificate explaining her absence, but she had no certificate. College authorities soon contacted her parents and pressured them to sign papers committing Frame to Seacliff Mental Hospital, where the staff incorrectly diagnosed her as suffering from schizophrenia. Thus began eight years on and off in various psychiatric hospitals, undergoing over 200 shock treatments. In 1951, while a patient, she published her first book, a collection of short stories entitled The Lagoon and Other Stories, which won the Hubert Church Memorial Award. These stories expressed her sense of isolation and alienation from the "normal" world. That award led her doctors to cancel the leucotomy they had scheduled to perform on her.

From 1954 to 1955, the pioneering New Zealand author Frank Sargeson let Frame live at no charge in an outbuilding at his residence in the Auckland suburb of Takapuna. Sargeson encouraged her in good writing habits, but she never let him see her work. She wrote her first novel Owls Do Cry while staying at his place. Again she returned to the theme of sanity and madness. Stylistically, the novel incorporated both poetry and prose in an experimental fashion.

In 1956, Frame left New Zealand with the help of a State Literary Fund grant. For seven years, she lived in London, with sojourns in Ibiza and Andorra. Not long after arriving in London, the American-trained psychiatrist Alan Miller, who had studied at Johns Hopkins University under the New Zealander John Money, pronounced her sane. Money and Frame had become good friends when they met at Otago University and their friendship endured for the rest of their lives.

She returned to New Zealand in 1963, upon learning of her father's death. (Her autobiography ends at this point.) She held the 1965 Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago, and then lived in several different parts of New Zealand, including Dunedin, Auckland, Taranaki, Wanganui, and the Horowhenua. Between 1965 and 1974, she spent much time in the U.S., including some at the Yaddo literary colony.

Later life

Janet Frame lived as a private person, spending the later part of her life, as much as possible, out of the public limelight, under her officially registered name of "Janet Clutha." She traveled frequently to visit friends who lived in the U.S. and the UK, and made occasional appearances at literary festivals held in New York, Toronto, Hawaii, Melbourne, Christchurch, and Wellington.

In 1983, Frame became a Commander of the Order of British Empire (CBE) for services to literature. She won the 1989 Commonwealth Writers Prize for her book, The Carpathians. In 1990, the Queen admitted her to the Order of New Zealand. Frame became an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and received honorary doctorates from two New Zealand Universities.

Many people regarded Frame as in the running for the Nobel Prize in literature, especially when Asa Bechman, chief literary critic at the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, predicted in 2003 that she would win it.

Janet Frame died at Dunedin hospital, aged 79, from acute myeloid leukemia, shortly after winning the New Zealand Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement.

Literary works

The Carpathians

The Carpathians
Author Janet Frame
Country New Zealand
Released 1989

The Carpathians is a novel by Janet Frame published in 1989, which won that year's Commonwealth Writers Prize. It is an example of her use of the style of Magic Realism. In The Carpathians, readers are presented with a topsy-turvy world. The protagonist, Mattina Brecon from New York, decides to fly to New Zealand to visit a town called Puamahara, where a Memory Flower grows. The flower has a special power that releases memories of the land, linking them with the future. Once there, Mattina rents a house on Kowhai Street, where she sets out to take control over her neighbors. They, however, are also time "impostors," brought into existence by the memory of another time and place. The town slowly begins to resemble a cemetery: Silent and dead still, with the exception of the abundance of exotic flowers. Mattina begins to unravel the secrets of Kowhai Street and discovers, in her own bedroom, that there is a strong presence.


Dates given record the date of first publication:

  • 1957. Owls Do Cry. Christchurch NZ: Pegasus Press.
  • 1961. Faces in the Water. Pegasus Press.
  • 1962. The Edge of the Alphabet. Pegasus Press, Christchurch, 1962.
  • 1963. Scented Gardens for the Blind. Pegasus Press, Christchurch, 1963.
  • 1963. The Adaptable Man. Pegasus Press, Christchurch, 1963.
  • 1966. A State of Siege. New York: Brazillier.
  • 1963. The Rainbirds. WH Allen, London, 1968. Published in the U.S. in 1969 as Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room.
  • 1970. Intensive Care. Brazillier.
  • 1972. Daughter Buffalo. Brazillier.
  • 1979. Living in the Maniototo. Brazillier.
  • 1989. The Carpathians. Brazillier.


  • "University Entrance" in New Zealand Listener, 22 March 1946.
  • "Alison Hendry" in Landfall 2, June 1947. (reprinted in The Lagoon and Other Stories as "Jan Godfrey".)
  • 1951 (1952). The Lagoon and Other Stories. Christchurch: Caxton Press.
  • 1963. The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches. New York: Brazillier.
  • 1963. Snowman Snowman: Fables and Fantasies. New York: Brazillier.
  • 1966. The Reservoir and Other Stories. Christchurch: Pegasus Press.
  • 1983. You Are Now Entering the Human Heart. Wellington: Victoria University Press.

Children's stories

  • 1969. Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun. New York: Brazillier.
  • 2005. Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun, new edition. Auckland: Random House/Vintage.


  • 1967. The Pocket Mirror. New York: Brazillier.
  • "Three Poems by Janet Frame" in New Zealand Listener, 28 August-3 September 2004 Vol 195 No 3355.
  • The Goose Bath Random House/Vintage, Auckland, 2006.


  • To the Is-Land (Autobiography 1), Brazillier, New York, 1982.
  • An Angel at My Table (Autobiography 2), Hutchinson, Auckland, 1984.
  • The Envoy From Mirror City (Autobiography 3), Hutchinson, Auckland, 1985.
  • Janet Frame: An Autobiography (Autobiography 1-3), Century Hutchinson, Auckland, 1989.


  • "A Letter to Frank Sargeson" in Landfall 25, March 1953, p.5.
  • "Review of Terence Journet's Take My Tip" in Landfall 32, December 1954, pp. 309-310.
  • "Review of A Fable by William Faulkner" in Parson's Packet, no. 36, October-December 1955, pp. 12-13.
  • "Memory and a Pocketful of Words" in Times Literary Supplement, 4 June 1964, pp. 12-13.
  • "This Desirable Property" in New Zealand Listener, 3 July 1964, pp. 12-13.
  • "Beginnings" in Landfall 73, March 1965, pp. 40-47.
  • "The Burns Fellowship" in Landfall 87, September 1968, pp. 241-242.
  • "Charles Brasch 1909-1973: Tributes and Memories from His Friends" in Islands 5, Spring 1973, pp. 251-253.
  • "Janet Frame on Tales from Grimm" in Education, Early Reading Series, 24, 9, 1975, p. 27.
  • "Departures and Returns" in G. Amirthanayagan (ed.) Writers in East-West Encounter, Macmillan, London, 1982.
  • "A last Letter to Frank Sargeson" in Islands 33, July 1984, pp. 17-22.


Frame was an influential figure within the genre of Magic Realism, but it is as a modern example of the "tortured artist" that she will inevitably be remembered, as well as for the film made from her biographical trilogy. Jane Campion adapted Frame's autobiographical trilogy (To the Is-land, An Angel at my Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City) into the 1990 film An Angel at my Table, in which Kerry Fox and two other actresses of different ages played the role of Frame. This autobiography contains an important account of an extended stay in a mental hospital in the days just before such hospitals generally closed in the 1960s.


  1. New Zealand Herald, A literary angel mourned. Retrieved November 15, 2007.

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External links

All links retrieved March 21, 2018.


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