Janet Frame Image by Reg Graham

Janet Frame’s † Biography

Arts Foundation Icon 2003, Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship 1974
Janet Frame has an international reputation and is one of New Zealand's most distinguished writers.

Janet Frame was born in Dunedin into a working class family imbued with a love of nature and a respect for the 'magic' of language. Her talent for writing emerged at a young age, with frequent publication of her poems in children's pages and on radio shows. Her early life was marred by struggles and tragedies that appeared to feed into some of her work, though Janet warned her readers of the danger of treating her fictional statements as autobiography.

Janet attended Otago University and trained as a teacher, but in her probationary year she abandoned the classroom in favour of her vocation as a writer. Shortly after this, she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. Her first collection of short stories, The Lagoon, for which she won the Hubert Church Memorial Award, was written in 1946 but not published until 1952. Many of the stories in that volume are told from the point of view of children whose imaginative worlds are dismissed by socially conformist adults.

After having spent nearly a decade alternating mental hospital stays with work as housemaid or waitress, in 1955 Janet accepted an invitation from Frank Sargeson to live in an old army hut in the garden of his Takapuna home. With his encouragement she wrote her first novel, Owls Do Cry (1957) and was at last launched on her literary career. She travelled to Europe, and after examination by medical experts in London, her psychiatric diagnosis was overturned. In 1958 she changed her surname to Clutha, but she continued to publish under the name that had already earned her acclaim in her homeland.

Her publishing career flourished through the early 1960s until the late 1980s. Her output was prolific: she released another ten novels, a children's book, a volume of poetry, and three further collections of stories. Her books were published in the UK and the USA as well as in New Zealand, and were translated into many languages. Her bestselling three-volume autobiography reached an even wider audience when it was adapted by Jane Campion for the celebrated movie An Angel at my Table.

In late 1963 Janet returned to live in New Zealand but she continued to travel widely, staying in Europe and the USA for long periods. Her international honours included foreign membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the 1989 Commonwealth Writer's Prize for The Carpathians. She was also several times rumoured to be a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The prize-winning author also received two honorary doctorates and a medal from New Zealand universities. She was awarded an Arts Foundation Icon Award in 2003, and the Inaugural $60,000 Prime Minister's Award for Literature in the same year.

Janet Frame became ill with acute myeloid leukaemia and passed away in Dunedin at the beginning of 2004 aged 79.

A posthumous collection of Janet Frame's poems was launched in 2006. The Goose Bath, co-edited by Bill Manhire (Laureate), went on to win the poetry category at the 2007 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Also in 2007 the novel Towards Another Summer, written in 1963, was published posthumously.

Five short stories have also been released by the Janet Frame Literary Trust, including three published in The New Yorker magazine. One of these, 'Gorse is Not People', was written in 1954 when Frame was working as a live-in waitress at the former Grand Hotel, Dunedin. The story was rejected in that year by the editor of the literary magazine Landfall on the grounds that it was 'too painful to print'.

Janet Frame In Her Own Words was published by Penguin in 2011. The collection brings together Janet Frame's published short non-fiction in one collected volume, as well as material never seen before. Letters spanning 50 years of Janet Frame's life are published alongside essays, reviews, speeches and extracts from interviews.

Milestones & Awards