7 September 2012

Michael King: Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame (2000)

Michael King's Wrestling with the Angel is an authorised biography of the New Zealand writer Janet Frame (1924–2004), and, according to her wishes, it is not a critical one. Not only does King leave his opinions out of the book, but he remains firmly in the background and seems to go out of his way to refer to himself in the third rather than the first person. That is a remarkably modest achievement in a 522-page book which is a no small achievement.1
Janet Frame is a major international writer, although she achieved this status in spite of a great number of difficulties: the daughter of a railway worker, extremely shy, she spent several years in psychiatric hospitals where she was diagonosed as a schizophrenic and underwent unmodified electroconvulsive therapy on numerous occasions; she only just escaped the chilling 'normalizing' effect of a prefrontal lobotomy. It was some (often anxiety-ridden) years before Frame learned that the diagnoses had been hopelessly incorrect, and she was therefore then able to take full cognizance of the mental and physical abuse she had undergone.
The first important step on the road to Frame's halting recovery from that abuse was in 1955, when the writer Frank Sargeson (1903–82) – well aware of her potential as a writer – invited her to live in an old army hut behind his bach in Takapuna on the north shore of Auckland. At the time both of them thought she had a mental illness. She accepted the offer, which was a crucial move in boosting her confidence and developing her intellectual awareness: there, for instance, she would regularly meet several writer friends of Sargeson's, such as C. K. Stead and his wife. And she also wrote her first novel, Owls Do Cry (1957), in the hut.2
The dust jacket shows, on the left, two cropped shots from the same photo taken in 1932: above, the wooden washhouse wall on Eden Street, Oamaru, and below, Janet with her sister Myrtle's arm around her; the panel on the right shows Frame in Willemstad, Curaçao in 1956, after she had left Takapuna for an extended stay in England.3
During her time in England, Frame underwent an existential crisis and admitted herself to Maudsley Hospital, London, where she was to have a great number of sessions with the psychiatrist Robert Cawley (who called them 'conversations'), a person who was to prove a revelation to Frame: she was to dedicate several of her books to him. It was from Cawley – a highly intelligent man not initially trained in his profession and who no doubt very quickly realized that Frame too was highly intelligent – that Frame finally learned not only that she wasn't suffering from schizophrenia (which she'd been told before), but that she had not suffered from a mental illness (in the formal sense) in her life. Cawley of course recognised, though, that she had an exquisite sensitivity, and although he had in a very real sense saved her, no 'cure' could be automatic: along with the psychological effects of the abuse that would obviously live with her all her life, Frame's difference would guarantee many difficulties. She kept in touch with Cawley as a friend until very shortly before his death in 1999.
I could continue to write a great deal more about this fascinating book about this fascinating woman, but I'll leave it there, partly because Frame's meeting with Cawley is a crucial turning point. Frame would write many more books and (very reluctantly) become a national treasure back in New Zealand, where she eventually decided to spend the rest of her life. She is probably most noted both nationally and globally (no doubt greatly aided by Jane Campion's film An Angel at My Table (1990)) for her autobiography, which was originally published as a trilogy: To the Is-Land (1882), An Angel at My Table (1884), and The Envoy From Mirror City. Frame had adapted the title An Angel at My Table from a line in 'Les Vergers', a French poem by Rilke.

King also wrote a biography on Frank Sargeson, and one of the things that strikes me about this book on finishing it is the number of writers mentioned in it – many of whom had key roles in Frame's life, others who had bit parts, some none at all – who are scarcely known outside the antipodes. Frame of course is well known, the Booker winner Keri Hulme is remembered, as are the expatriate Katherine Mansfield and the semi-expatriate detective story writer Ngaio Marsh, but that is perhaps all. Other writers mentioned, apart from Sargeson, Stead and Brasch, and Frame's great female friend E. P. ('Peter') Dawson (who didn't actually publish much), are James K. Baxter, Dennis McEldowney, Denis Glover, Allen Curnow, Maurice Duggan, Dan Davin, Robin Hyde, Greville Texidor, and others who don't immediately spring to mind. Not all of these are from New Zealand, but clearly the literature of this country is well worth looking into.
1King was born in 1945 and died in 2004 with his wife in a car crash just two months after Frame died.
2Her first published book was The Lagoon and Other Stories (Christchurch: Caxton Press [1951]), although between 1946 and 1955 she had had a number of short stories and poems published in several organs, notably Charles Brasch's literary magazine Landfall, and New Zealand Listener.
3The family lived for some years at 56 Eden Street, Oamaru, South Island, now preserved as a museum. Myrtle died swimming at the age of sixteen – far from being the only major misfortune to strike the Frame family. (I thought it would have been neater if Allan Phillips – the physicist she went ashore with on the return journey – had taken the Curaçao shot, but the photo caption says it was taken on the outward journey, although not by whom).
Below are related links to other blog posts of mine:
Janet Frame: An Angel at My Table (1982–85)

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