Janet Frame

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Janet Frame: Autobiography

Frame, Janet

Last Updated: Nov-01-2001
Annotated by:
Sirridge, Marjorie

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography


This autobiography by Janet Frame, a preeminent New Zealand writer, was originally published in three volumes in 1982, 1984, and 1985. The first volume is titled To the Is-land. In it the author tells the story of her early life "with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths." She describes her mother as a rememberer and a talker, partly exiled from her family through a marriage outside the family's faith and her father as having a strong sense of formal behavior that did not allow him the luxury of reminiscence. Her siblings (4 sisters and 1 brother) are described in equally perceptive language. The brother suffered from epilepsy which was poorly controlled and this had a strong influence on family dynamics.

Frame's writing is so descriptive and personal that it is easy to envision oneself as a family member. She was very early attracted to words and became a voracious reader. The family was poor and moved often but there was a firm family kinship. One older and one younger sister drowned when swimming which had a large impact and drew Janet much closer to the remaining younger sister. Janet was a good student and won many prizes; she writes that she "identified most easily with the stoical, solitary heroine suffering in silence."

The second volume, An Angel at My Table, concerns itself with Janet's experience as a student at Dunedin (Teacher)Training College and her subsequent breakdown and commitment to mental institutions. She was very lonely in college and retreated more and more into her own world of literature. At the end of her year of probationary teaching she walked out of the room during the visit of the school's inspector and disappeared.

After a suicide attempt she was eventually committed to Seacliff, a mental hospital. Her stay there, she writes, and later in another facility which eventually lasted most of seven years, was in a world she'd never known among people whose existences she never thought possible. She describes it as an intensive course in the horrors of insanity. She received multiple electric shock treatments and was scheduled for a lobotomy when it was learned that she had won a prestigious award for a book she had written.

Frame was discharged on probation and lived for a while in a small cottage owned by a well known writer who befriended her. After her book of prose and poems was accepted for publication she was awarded a grant that allowed her to travel abroad.

The third volume, The Envoy from Mirror City, is quite mystical and concerns itself with her life as a writer in England, Spain, and New Zealand after her return. She describes Mirror City as the saving world which sustains writers. She has continued writing and eventually learned that the diagnosis of schizophrenia, with which she had been burdened, was incorrect. With some life experience and wise psychotherapy she was able to write about her life in the mental institutions, among other things.

In all she has published eleven novels, four collections of short stories, a volume of poetry and a children's book.

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