Attending and avoiding, Elizabeth Webby

Journal of New Zealand Literature No 11, 1993, “Janet Frame Issue”,
Department of English, University of Otago, $12.00


Paper‑givers and delegates at the conference which this issue of JNZL records came from Canada and Britain, as well as from all over New Zealand and Australia. That is a sign that Janet Frame is now (after Katherine Mansfield) the most widely studied New Zealand writer.

As someone who greatly regretted being unable to attend the conference, I read many of the papers while fog‑bound at Canberra airport after attending the sixteenth conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, which provoked some reflections on what those “general readers”, whom the editor, Chris Prentice, notes as present, would have made of the conference. on the final day of the ASAL conference, a man whom nobody knew (a “general reader”?) complained of having listened to five days of papers without hearing one word about aesthetics. Would he have made the same complaint if he’d been at the ANZL one?

What, for example, would he have thought of Susan Ash’s opening paper, “‘The Absolute, Distanced Image’: Janet Frame’s Autobiography”, which compares Frame’s autobiographical project with her earlier autobiographical fiction, Faces in the Water (1961)? Drawing on Bakhtin’s distinction between epic and novel, she demonstrates that the “Janet Frame” presented in the autobiographies, and the “Janet Frame” who narrates them, are separated in a way not found with Istina Mavet in Faces. The open ending of the novel ‑ the last sentence being a question addressed to the reader ‑ contrasts with the closed “happy ending” of the third volume of autobiography. The autobiographies, also. as Ash observes, adopt narrative strategies closer to those of the nineteenth-century realist novel than to Frame’s earlier fiction.

Readers who come to the autobiographies as lovers of Frame’s fiction can therefore find them disconcerting, as both Ash and Gina Mercer acknowledge. Mercer’s paper “‘A Simple Everyday Glass’: The Autobiographies of Janet Frame” carries on Ash’s reference to the nineteenth‑century novel in its analogies with Jane Eyre. The “Janet Frame” readers are offered in the autobiographies, Mercer asserts, is ‘the homely housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax”. The “Janet Frame” of the novels is “a Bertha Mason, the woman with the potential to burn the house down” (p43). Reading these two opening papers, however, led me to wonder whether the “Janet Frame” of the autobiographies is not, rather, Jane Eyre herself, the homely heroine who endures poverty, deprivation, death threats and exile but at last achieves her vocation. Like Jane Eyre, the autobiographies can be seen as a female version of the classic male Bildungsroman, whose questing hero is eventually reintegrated into his society through the discovery of his true profession. Frame’s mate is the envoy from mirror city rather than Mr Rochester, her vocation that of writer rather than wife ‑ an outcome more in keeping with female aspirations in the late twentieth century.

Those two opening papers, which work so suggestively together, also have strong links with the last paper of the conference ‑ and the collection ‑ Vanessa Finney’s “What Does ‘Janet Frame’ Mean?” Unlike Ash and Mercer, Finney read Frame’s novels after the autobiographies, rather than before, and so did not share their sense of dismay. Her paper reads the autobiographies against earlier journalistic constructions of “Janet Frame” rather than against theoretical or literary works. But her conclusions very much complement those of Ash and Mercer: “The ‘self’ Frame defines and creates in the autobiography resides in her identity as a writer” (p 195); ‘this author‑figure is of Frame’s own making and firmly in her control. She has textualised her own life and claimed back the authority to describe it.” (p202)

Both Mercer and Finney quote reactions to the autobiography from male critics who appear to resent Frame’s reclamation of authority, her construction of “Janet Frame” as author‑hero rather than madwoman-victim. One of those critics, Patrick Evans, presumably because he was one of the first to write extensively on Frame’s fiction, had been invited to give a speech at the conference dinner. Entitled “The Case of the Disappearing Author”, it is presented first in the collection. While its witty urbanity no doubt went down well with the coffee and port, some rather disturbing features became apparent when it is re-read in the context of the papers from Ash, Mercer and Finney. First, one might consider the title, with its murder‑mystery connotations. If one had any doubts that Frame was to be seen as the murder victim, they are dispelled by Evans’ final admission that “the writer as victim” is, for him, “the most potent” of Frame’s roles. (p20) How then are we meant to see Evans? As the detective, as the murderer or, perhaps, with J L Borges in mind, as both? Earlier, Evans has certainly attempted to reassert his authority by claiming, perhaps in jest, to have provoked Frame into writing her autobiographies:

It has always been my vanity to think that the entire autobiographical project was a process of retrieval for her of a past that had been sullied by my own doggy sniffings and scribblings over the years. (p17)


Without the detective (or murderer) there clearly would have been no case ‑ and no autobiography!

Most of the critics already discussed note the vast differences the publication of the autobiographies have made to Frame’s reputation, both nationally and internationally. It is significant that four out of the 16 papers concentrate on the autobiographies, while they or Frame’s personal history, are also central to three others. Lidia Conetti, translator of the autobiographies into Italian, writes of difficulties and delights of doing so in “Janet Frame, the Little Child in Us”. Diane Caney discusses “Janet Frame and The Tempest” in relation to her autobiographies and early novels. And, despite its title, Ken Bragan’s “Survival After the Cold Touch of Death: The Resurrection Theme in the Writing of Janet Frame” concentrates more on Frame than on her writing. My heart sank a little on seeing this title, fearing a born-again, Christian reading of the novels. But Bragan, unlike the other speakers, has a medical rather than literary critical training and perspective. He came to Frame’s writing via working as a doctor at Seacliff Hospital in 1965.

She had left the hospital about 10 years previously, but Faces in the Water had not long been published and I soon became aware of her as a “presence” in the hospital. She was much spoken about, but guardedly and with what seemed like considerable disquiet. (p133.)


His paper tackles the issue of how Frame managed to survive her hospital experiences, and become a writer of distinction. Using Heinz Kohut’s concept of the self‑object, Bragan throws considerable light on what Frame means by “mirror city” or “the manifold”.

According to Kohut, self‑objects are not objects “out there” but are the inner reflection of those objects; they are the experience of external objects as they function to evoke and support and nurture the self. Self‑objects create, and exist in, an inner space which both holds and sustains the self; at the same time however they require some external representation, and replenishment by on-going experience. (p134)


As a psychiatrist, Bragan is able to use words like “inner” and “outer”, “self” and “object” with a freedom and confidence now denied to the literary critic, or at least those who write from post‑structuralist, post‑modernist perspectives. In her “Post‑modernism or Post‑colonialism? Fictive Strategies in Living in the Maniototo and The Carpathians“, Janet Wilson argues that, despite her use of post‑modern narrative strategies, Frame is not a post‑modernist in her world view. Likewise, Valerie Sutherland in “A Ventriloquist in the House of Replicas: A Reading of The Carpathians“, sees this novel as resisting ‘the post‑modern outlook which destabilises all that was formerly fixed”. (p113) This brings us back to Susan Ash’s reading of the autobiographies as presenting a stable “Janet Frame”, a self as object.

Superficially, Frame’s novels, with their use of multiple narrators, their preoccupation with language and with various types of abjection, seems tailor‑made for post-structuralist readings. This, of course, is part of the trouble ‑ post‑structuralist readings work best as resistant readings, readings against the grain of apparently uncomplicated texts. When a text is already subverting rather than asserting mainstream cultural values as Frame’s novels do, a post-structuralist reading can be resistant in another sense. Rather than the critic resisting the mainstream reading desired by the text, the text can resist the critic. This, I felt, happened with Howard McNaughton’s “Abjection, Melancholy, and the End Note: The Epilogue to Owls Do Cry“. Kristeva, Bakhtin, Freud, Bataille are brought to bear on Frame’s two and a‑half pages of text. After three readings, this paper still resisted me. In “Powers of Speech and Silence”, however, Tessa Barringer provides a lucid Kristevan reading of Scented Gardens for the Blind as a “dialectic between the symbolic and the semiotic” (p74). Her conclusion does perhaps owe more to desire than to logic. Noting that neither the characters Vera and Erlane nor the “text as subject” are “able to achieve the necessary balance between the semiotic and the symbolic”, Barringer still finds a positive outcome:

The text itself represents the birth of a language that is neither murder nor sacrifice; a language that, in acknowledging its debt to the abjection of death and decay, offers to redeem speech from its silence and to liberate the silence from speech. (p88)

Like Barringer, most of those who write on Frame’s novels here resist earlier constructions of them as depressing or confusing. Judith Dell Panny in “A Hidden Dimension in Janet Frame’s Fiction” argues for allegorical readings, using a case study of Intensive Care (an extract from her book on Frame, launched at the conference). Ruth Brown’s “A State of Siege: The Sociable Frame” reads this novel in its historical, literary and geographical contexts, seeing it as a challenge to the “man alone” concept which dominated New Zealand literary life in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, as she notes, A State of Siege ends with a reassertion of “the artist’s transcendent status”:

All the sophistries of post‑modernism and of scientific theories of quantum and relativity have failed to eliminate a readerly belief in essential truth, and the hope that art will somehow reveal it. (p57)

Accordingly, Eve Scopes in “Re‑Visioning Daughter Buffalo offers a post‑Jungian reading which focuses on the need to acknowledge death as central to life and so something to be attended to rather than avoided. Alison Lambert, in “Coverups and Exposure: Art and Ideology in The Carpathians”, celebrates Frame’s challenges to dominant power structures and her privileging of such marginalised social groups as children, the age, the insane and, particularly in this novel, the Maori. Finally, Jennifer Lawn in “Docile Bodies: Normalisation and the Asylum in Owls Do Cry” provides a Foucaultian reading, suggesting that we are all to some degree complicit with the disciplinary structures which work towards normalisation and the production of “docile bodies”: “we need look no further than this conference itself, as we engage in processes which produce and sustain academic discourse, standards, fashions, hierarchies” (p184).

Many more women than men took the opportunity to discuss Frame’s work at the conference. Most occupied fairly junior positions in the academic hierarchy, as postgraduate students or lecturers. This may, however, have more to tell us about the positions of New Zealand literature, and of women, in English departments than about academic views of Janet Frame. While no professors of English gave papers at the conference, I assume that all, at least in New Zealand, would see Janet Frame as a canonical author.

She is, however, still not quite canonical enough to have all her published works in print. After the autobiographies, Frame’s earliest and most recent novels were the most often discussed. No one spoke about her short stories, her poetry or her children’s writing; the two novels set chiefly in Britain, The Edge of the Alphabet and The Adaptable Man, received only passing mention. This may be partly a reflection of the availability, and therefore the teachability, of certain texts and not others. If the canon is what is taught, and what is taught is what is in print, who determines what is in print? In so‑called post‑colonial cultures the answer is still, too often, the old imperial centre, London, though, increasingly, decisions are made by post‑modern multinationals, whose centres are everywhere. The preference for certain types of texts, however, clearly also reflects the current higher station of fiction, and of the types of literary theory which privilege fiction, within the academy.

All the theories currently in vogue received a good work-out at the conference, sometimes, as I have suggested, appearing to cast more darkness than light (from a Kristevan point of view that may be a compliment). Though some convergence of views was apparent, especially with regard to the autobiographies, in one sense what the conference offered was 16 different versions of “Janet Frame”. To some she was a victim, to others she was a poet; some saw her as a survivor, others as New Zealand’s greatest living writer. Some came to pay tribute, others to enhance their academic career. At the end of the conference, participants may have been no closer to answering Vanessa Finney’s question, “What Does ‘Janet Frame’ Mean?” But they certainly all provide answers to the question asked by an ex‑school fellow of Frame’s on my one visit to Dunedin about a decade ago: ‘How can you set her work for University study?” And a few of them even discuss aesthetics.

Elizabeth Webby is professor of Australian Literature, University of Sydney.

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