Back in the frame, Elizabeth Alley

An Inward Sun: The World of Janet Frame
Michael King, contemporary photographs by Reg Graham
Penguin Books, $39.95,
ISBN 0143018388

So much has already been said. It is an irony that Janet Frame’s life, so often described as that of our most “reclusive” writer, now ranks among the most documented, raked over, and re examined. Rightly or wrongly, Frame is seen standing  apart, remote, a bit mysterious, shrouded in a kind of mist of otherness created by an intellectuality whose brilliant originality elevates her to that rank of  writers given to high seriousness and accorded iconic status in the New Zealand literary culture.

That assessment has some truth in it, of course, and the elements of darkness and mystery are common enough themes in the way other writers write about her. The late Lauris Edmond writes of Frame in one poem as “the figure rounding a corner/at the far end of a corridor/in a Sydney hotel; back view, moving fast.” The Italian scholar Anna Grazia Mattei notes Frame’s escape to “a heart of darkness where ‘otherness’ lies in wait”; Bill New remarks on “the shadows (that) take you back to the rippled slate pools of private memory, and guide you to the edge that still stands there, undercover, in the middle of the dark wood.” And so on.

Some of the mystery was dispelled by Frame’s three volumes of autobiography and the fine film by Bridget Ikin and Hibiscus films, which was subsequently based on them. While there is still no major and definitive critical work on Frame, books of appreciation and tribute that colour in other aspects of the life and work, a couple of broadcast and published interviews and, in particular, Michael King’s splendid biography Wrestling with the Angel; A Life of Janet Frame (2000) leave little else to be said.


Or do they? In this new book, Michael King has taken to heart the thesis that a picture is worth a thousand words. Frame herself, as she has often done, provides the core on which King has developed this new work on the writer who continues to fascinate a wide readership despite the lack of new published books since The Carpathians in 1988. She says: “I’m not sure that I see life … what I see is the life within.” It is this life “within” which King seeks to illuminate in this book usefully seen as a companion volume to Wrestling with the Angel and, indeed, to Frame’s own autobiographies. In 2000, King curated a National Library exhibition of a collection of photographs, manuscripts, and memorabilia pertinent to Janet Frame. It prompted a response from her sister June Gordon that it might make a good book. This is the result.

Wisely, King does not greatly develop new text. He returns to his own biography from which he makes judicious and sometimes reworked selections along with those from Frame’s autobiographies. With  subtle juxtaposition of text with photograph and illustration and an intelligent grouping of  episodes from  Frame’s life, he builds a portrait that partly confirms the familiar, but frequently adds new and surprising perspectives to what we think we know of this most enigmatic and intriguing  of writers.

Here is the Janet Frame we recognise with siblings and relatives, at high school, with  friends and at gatherings, on various travels abroad. These provide the stepping stones from the known life which lead towards some startling images of a less familiar figure. Some have a shocking simplicity. The picture of the house in Andorra adds a heightened reality to the knowledge of the miscarriage endured while living there with an impoverished family, an event which left her with a feeling “stronger than regret  but not as intense as bereavement, a no-woman’s land of feeling where a marvellous sense of freedom sprang up beside hate for myself”. There are affluent tourists in this picture, while we imagine Janet alone, suffering in the bare house behind the brick wall.

Most poignant of all is the image of the unfinished piece of French lace made during occupational therapy while hospitalised, an image so strong in its implications as we ponder what went through the  mind of a misunderstood writer, struggling to come to terms with the trivia of knots and patterns in a bewildering, painful, environment devoid of human dignity. The unfinished work with its incoherent structure ending in a jumble of loose raggedly uneven ends somehow exemplifies this suffering.

Less potent but just as important to the understanding of the life are the photographs of Frame’s family, especially those of her parents, Lottie and George. Reader of stories and teller of tales (including the diverting suggestion that unemployed men in the Depression, asking at the door for work, might be angels in disguise), passer-on of Christadelphian influences, lover of poetry who encouraged reading and imaginative games in her children – her mother has always been a more strongly defined figure. George, on the other hand, the engine driver “Dad”, whose hobbies were outside day-to-day family life, appears here as the proud and tender family man, showing off his first-born children in a picture which has particular poignancy when one considers his uneasy return from the war. (He had asked Lottie to release him from the marriage in order to marry a nurse whom he had met during war service. Lottie, after desolate and hard years on her own, was determined to hang on. Had she not, Janet, as yet unborn, might never have been.)

Some of the most evocative pictures are those where the protagonist is seen as  a seeker of recollected memory. She makes return visits to the several places and houses in which the itinerant railway family lived. In Outram, she shelters under the walnut tree where in 1926 she spoke her first words: “Pick walnut up Mummy.” She peers through the shuttered windows of the house at Wyndham, the one with the “smooth dunny seat” of the poem named for the place. And the house at Eden St, Oamaru, which bears a startling resemblance to several of Frame’s many subsequent houses, in particular those in Wanganui, Levin, Palmerston North, and Dunedin. It is the kind of house (two eyes and a nose), common to the childhoods of many of us, but its recurrence in her life prompts some puzzlement as to what, apart from quiet, Frame has been seeking as she’s moved between similar square boxes (at the last unconfirmed count some 16 in the last 30 years). A reaffirmation of places in which she shared family unity with her sisters? The safety of small enclosed spaces? Somehow these pictures of Frame in simple gesture and ordinary activity, resonate more strongly than those of Frame the famous writer.


Whether by accident or design, the book revises the overarching view of Frame as our most “reclusive” writer. Collectively, the images expose a person who enjoys convivial friendship and genuinely delights in company of her choosing. In group photograph, she sometimes looks lost and, characteristically, as if she’d rather be anywhere than centre focus. But caught in unselfconcious gesture and exchange with friend or relative, there is a glowing openness that speaks of her joy in friendship and the pleasure of mutually enjoyed human interaction. Pictures of Frame and sister June at St Clair Beach, with publisher George Braziller, and most especially with Paul Wonner and his partner Bill Brown (“the chief experience of my life”) are unforgettable and haunting.

As is the image, artfully placed last in the book, as if to say “here I really am”, of Frame tap-dancing on the bare boards of Frank Sargeson’s house in Takapuna. Here is the Frame with the wicked sense of impish humour, the Janet who is well known to close friends but virtually unknown to those outside her circle. Is King saying here, at this point, that we would now do well to re-evaluate the way we socially categorise our most esteemed living writer?  I think so.

But for this reader, a new truth emerges which should have significance in any new thinking about Frame’s life. Apart from the early photographs, in which the warmth and sisterly unity of early family life remain more important than the comparative poverty and the growing knowledge of her otherness, many of the happiest, most relaxed and natural pictures of Frame are those which depict her away from New Zealand. Do we who are so ardently and primitively nationalistic about who and what are our own, need to release her into the wider world where she also belongs?

When writing of Frame’s “belonging”, the Guyanan novelist Wilson Harris asks: “What is place, what is native, what is the inner state of home …. where within the self, without the self, are the dimensionalities of the intimate stranger that are the measure of the secret of home?” If we can allow Frame freedom from a nation’s expectations, freedom to more fully inhabit her own unique imaginative spaces, then perhaps she may find more comfort within her true place, her real is-land.

In 1994, preparing my own collection of tributes  published for Janet Frame’s 70th birthday, I aberrantly called it The Inward Sun, Celebrating the Life and Work of Janet Frame, delighting in the relevance while forgetting an earlier, out of print book by Patrick Evans bearing the same title. King acknowledges both these previous usages, but it is perplexing that he himself has chosen to perpetuate them with a third book similarly titled. Unless, of course, he too is acknowledging that Frame’s own metaphor for the power of the imagination (“a bright light, without shade – a kind of inward sun”) cannot be bettered.


Elizabeth Alley is a literary broadcaster living in Wellington.


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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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