Biography and Compassionate Truth: Writing a Life of Janet Frame

by Michael King

© all rights reserved

Janet Frame is, as you will know, New Zealand’s most celebrated and least public living author. In a writing career that now spans 55 years she has had published twelve novels, four story collections, one collection of poetry and three volumes of autobiography. Her work is in print in English in New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States; and in foreign language editions in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Holland, Hungary, Poland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, China and Japan.

The quality of her work has moved from simple excellence, to what is generally recognised as something even greater. Harvard critic and librarian John Beston called her “the most distinguished woman writer in English”; Michael Holroyd described her three volumes of memoirs as “one of the great autobiographies written in the twentieth century”; Nobel Laureate Patrick White said that Frame’s fiction made him feel that “I have always been a couple of steps from where I wanted to get in my own writing”. Frame herself has frequently been spoken of as a potential Nobel recipient and was one of six writers shortlisted for the Literature prize in 1998.

Mention of Patrick White impels me to diverge here, for a moment, to note that Frame does have Australian associations. She has cousins in New South Wales, one of whom became a film maker; she has stayed in Sydney on two occasions, one of them for an international PEN Congress; and her books have sold well here, especially her volumes of autobiography, in the wake of Jane Campion’s film An Angel At My Table.

Inevitably, people are interested in her fragile connection with Patrick White. When Frame was staying at the MacDowell colony for writers, artists and musicians in New Hampshire in November 1969, she went out to dinner with the American poet, novelist and autobiographer May Sarton. Sarton began to talk about fan mail. To bring Fame into the conversation, she asked the New Zealander if she too received letters from admirers.

“I did get one from Patrick White,” Frame said in her most tentative voice.

Sarton, who had put the question to her in charity rather than in expectation of an impressive answer asked, “When was this?”

“Six years ago,” said Frame.

“Did you reply?”

“Not yet,” answered Frame.

“Then you must,” said Sarton. “All I get is letters from women in basements in Ohio with rats nibbling their feet.

The letter from White had arrived in 1963 when Frame was living and writing in London. No copy has survived, but Frame at the time told Bertrand Russell’s former mistress, Constance Malleson, that it was “so wonderful and unselfish, particularly from one writer to another, that I’ve not been able to answer it”.

Some clue as to what may have been said can be gleaned from White’s letters to other people that same year. There was the comment I’ve already quoted, to publisher Ben Huebsch, that White felt a couple of steps behind Frame in his development as a writer. And to Geoffrey and Ninette Dutton, he speculated that Frame’s sojourns in mental hospitals had probably given her “just hat extra insight to burrow further than the rest of us”.

Frame did eventually reply to White’s letter, twenty-two years after she had received it. A time lapse of this magnitude was and is by no means unusual, which makes correspondence with her a frustrating experience.

“When your letter came,” she wrote at last, “I was so much overwhelmed that I couldn’t think how to answer it. It has now become part of my life … as ‘the letter’ and has … assumed a literary life of its own. I’m using the left-over courage needed on a jet flight to Sydney to greet you [and] to say thank you for your encouragement and for you own wonderful writing …”

On this occasion, in November 1985, Frame was visiting Australia for the second time, with her niece Pamela Gordon. She had at first tried to speak with White. But the by now Nobelled writer declined to come to the telephone, citing illness as an excuse. White’s biographer, David Marr, gave a different reason for his refusal to communicate with the New Zealander, however. White, he said, “didn’t want to disturb the very detailed fantasy he’d come to have of her … as mad, shy etc. It was violation enough of that image that she had crossed the Tasman … The vision would have collapsed [altogether] if she’d crossed the threshold and sat down to tea. He didn’t want her to be ordinary … so he fobbed her off”.

One of the senses in which Frame is decidedly not ordinary is that she is a writer who, in the past, has gone to considerable lengths to avoid publicity for herself or for her books. She is the only author I know of who writes under her own name but lives under a pseudonym: Janet Clutha. Her reluctance to be seen or heard is legendary, comparable with that associated with J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon. She declines interviews and public appearances as a matter of course. According to one journalist, on one of the rare occasions a publisher persuaded Frame to submit a newspaper interview, Frame insisted that she sit in a sealed room and that written questions be slid to her under the door; she then returned written answers in the same manner. That story, on investigation, turned out to be wildly exaggerated. But it is characteristic of what is said, written and believed about Frame.

Patrick Evans, one of several literary critics who have tried previously to write a Frame biography noted:

[Most] writers would do anything to be embalmed in a literary critical work that is part of a worldwide series. Frame, it seems, would do anything to avoid it … By helping myself to her life I had … seemed [to her] like a cheerfully insensitive do-gooder barging into the house of her fiction and throwing windows open, hurling sheets into the washing machine, plumping up cushions and vacuuming the stairs whilst singing songs from the shows …

Writers who hide away probably do so principally because they want to avoid meeting people like me; and this is something Janet Frame has done with great skill and cunning. Over the years she has turned me into a sort of critical paparazzo … always trying for that special, authentic shot as I stumble through the shrubbery of her life … My attempts to find first-hand information, most recently last year, have been vigorously and efficiently rebuffed, and as I have moved closer and closer to people who know her, less and less is said. There is a remarkable taboo around Janet Frame, a remarkable desire to protect her from enquiry.

How, then, against this background of reticence, did I come to write a Frame biography?

The first thing I should note, perhaps is that I was not a stranger to her: I had known her for some sixteen years before I came to write the book. I met her as a consequence of my membership of the writers organisation PEN, now the NZ Society of Authors, to which she also belonged, when we were able to offer her some help in 1978.

The following year, I was instrumental in persuading her to attend what was only the third conference of writers held in New Zealand, and to do so as a guest of honour. Any sense of triumph we might have felt at this coup was dashed the moment she walked into her first conference session. It was on Maori and Polynesian writing and chaired by an immensely dignified and courteous Maori elder. As Janet came in late and took a seat in the corner of the lecture theatre furthest away from the illuminated stage, the chairman got to his feet and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I would ask you all to put your hands together and welcome our guest Janet Frame.” The audience did as requested, and turned its collective head to stare at the far corner of the room. The guest of honour got to her feet and walked out, and we didn’t see her again that weekend.

In the years that followed I called in to see Janet whenever I travelled by car up or down the North Island. I recall one of these occasions, in Palmerston North, when she asked if I would do her a favour. Of course I would. What was it? The car she owned at that time, a Daihatsu Charade – what else would such a sly novelist drive?– was sitting in the driveway. It had just been serviced and the local mechanic had parked it back there. Would I put it out on the street for her. Certainly, but why? “Well”, said Janet, “I have my licence of course. But I prefer to organise things so that I only have to drive forwards.” Ah! I thought at the time. A marvellous title for a consciousness raising biography: Forever Forward….

In 1990 I was given permission by the Sargeson Trust, of which I was a member, to write a biography of Frame’s mentor Frank Sargeson, the writer who had taken her in when she was discharged from mental hospitals in 1955 and set her up in his army hut, fed her and supported her – thus creating the circumstances and conditions that allowed her to write her first novel, Owls Do Cry. Janet offered considerable help with that biography. She not only remembered, with near-total recall, events of her lengthy stay with Sargeson in 1955-56; she also remembered almost all the stories he had told her over this period about other episodes in his life; and, of course, she continued to see him and to correspond with him until his death in 1982. I interviewed her, corresponded with her, and discussed with her drafts of relevant chapters.

By August 1995 I was nearing the close of the Sargeson biography and giving consideration to what I might do next. By this time too I was persuaded of the advantages, for the biographer, of literary subjects. While it was never possible to burrow completely inside the psyche of another, or to recreate precisely how that other was seeing and feeling and thinking about the world, one came closest to an intimate viewpoint in the case of subjects who left an ample sufficiency of evidenceof their inner lives. Because their business was the production of words and the endless recreation and recycling of their own experience, writers came closer than other kinds of people to generating such evidence and leaving it potentially accessible to other writers.

I decided that, in an ideal world, I would like to write a biography of Janet Frame. I was convinced that she was, along with Katherine Mansfield, New Zealand’s most able and most interesting writer, and one in whom public interest would remain enduring. I also felt that the kind of association we had had in the course of the preparation of the Sargeson biography would have given her a feel for the way I worked and, I hoped, grounds to trust me.

I was also aware, however, of Janet’s profound distaste for public disclosure of facts about her own life, particularly disclosures made by others. She was deeply convinces that what mattered, and what other people had a right to see and know, were the published writings that an author chose to release into the public domain. The rest was private, the business only of the writer, and of the writer’s family, friends and (perhaps) medical advisers. And, in Janet’s case, family and friends had, as Patrick Evans lamented, developed a deeply ingrained habit of non-disclosure of information about her.

While Janet had, almost reluctantly, written an autobiography that covered half her life, she had done so only to have what she referred to as “my say”. And she was driven to it by what she felt were the impertinent and wildly inaccurate versions of parts of her life that others had written and published. She wanted to set the record “straight”; and in particular she wanted to dispel the notion that she was a genius whose art arose from a disordered mind. She also believed, erroneously, as it turned out, that, if she wrote an autobiography, it would quench what appeared to be an insatiable public appetite for information about her and dry up the pool of other people determined to write about her.

Alas! Her three volumes of autobiography, which took her life up to 1963, and the Jane Campion film based on them, acted like petrol on the flames of curiosity and fanned an even larger bonfire of public interest in her life. Now, not only did people still want to write speculatively and analytically about her, she also discovered that she had spawned a new and largely academic industry devoted to analysis of the autobiographies and to questions such as to what extent they were “true” or misleading; and to whether or not they were designed to conceal more than they reveal. One critic even went so far as to suggest that they were devised to cover some undisclosed skeleton in the oedipal closet.

All this I knew in 1995, because Frame and I had talked about the business of biography and autobiography in the context of Sargeson’s life. I was not hopeful, therefore, when I wrote to Frame in August of that year and asked if she would consider designating me her biographer – a necessary step to secure the cooperation of her friends and family – and helping me to write such a book. I would have been even more pessimistic had I known that she had written earlier that same year to Elizabeth Alley, her executor, and said that the very thought of being “biographied” was like a beetle crawling on her skin.

As things transpired, she replied that I should come to Palmerston North to discuss the matter with her. I made the trip in the belief that I would have to marshal evidence and arguments in order to persuade her that what I was proposing was a good idea, for her as well as for me. And what would have made that conversation difficult was the fact that even I wasn’t convinced that it was a good idea for her, other than as a means to clear away further misunderstandings and to put off other people whom I knew had been presenting themselves to her, or to her publishers and agent, as candidate biographers.

I arrived at Frame’s house in Dahlia Street, weighed down by what I imagined would be the gravity and the difficulty of the encounter. I was made more tense by the realisation that, yes, this was the next book I really wanted to write. Yet I was by no means confident of my ability to make my case in ways that would move her. I had seen in the past how deeply and adversely she was affected by the attempts of others to persuade her to do something she was resolutely opposed to doing.

Janet opened the door and, before I had even had an opportunity to greet her, said, “Yes”. I said, “Yes what?” She said, “Yes, you can do the book.” I said, “Then what have I come her to discuss?” And she said, “How we go about it, how exactly we do it.” And that was a topic to which I had scarcely begun to turn my mind.

Unbeknown to me various people, including Elizabeth Alley and George Braziller, Frame’s American publisher, had been urging her to “anoint” a biographer for the very reason that had occurred to me: to put an end to the stream of requests and inquiries on that topic. Doing so, they said, would also give her a degree of input into the process of research and writing, which would be entirely lacking if biographies were written without her authorisation. And they reminded her how upset she had been in the past when things about her had been published that were vastly distorted by misunderstanding or simply wrong.

Janet herself had worried that if a non-New Zealander were to write such a book, that person might not fully understand the New Zealand dimension of her life – what it meant to be the child of a railways family, for example. Another point in favour of my candidacy turned out to be that my mother’s father had worked for the railways just like Janet’s and that hence there were features of their upbringing that had overlapped.

The consequence of all this was that by the time I arrived at Dahlia St, Palmerston North, in August 1995, Janet Frame had made a decision. And one way of characterising it would be to call it a case of opting for the devil she knew rather than one of the devils she knew not.

I did have a moment of doubt about the validity of that decision. Not long after it had been made I read that Gore Vidal had authorised Fred Kaplin to write hisbiography, under the impression that he was Justin Kaplan, biographer of Twain and Whitman. By the time the error was discovered it was too late to, as it were, to change horses. Now there is at least one other writer Michael King in New Zealand, a Maori stand-up comedian known as Mike King. Several years ago he won the entertainer of the year award and I received about half of his congratulatory mail. Now I am not Maori, nor am I a stand-up comedian – though I am, on occasions, a sit-down one. Was there any possibility, I wondered, that Janet Frame had confused us? Had she intended to defuse the painful episodes in her life by having them sublimated as comedy? I checked with her. No, she had not.

Back in Palmerston North in August 1995, we talked of how we might proceed. I believed that if she were prepared to cooperate with me, to talk with me, to make her papers and her friends and family available to me, that I would need something like two-and-a-half years for research, and a further two years to write a manuscript in close consultation with her, researching further gaps as they became apparent. There would then be something like a six-month period in which the book would be in production. That added up to at least five years. Janet brightened at once and said, “Of course I’ll be dead by then.” And that seemed to make the whole idea not just more tolerable, but more acceptable.

As things turned out, that timetable was accurate. The biography was published in New Zealand in August of last year, exactly five years from the time we first discussed it. Janet was persuaded not to die, and she faced the whole business of publication and promotion with generosity and courage. But when people ask her what she thinks of the book, she has her answer ready. “Oh, I haven’t read it,” she says. Which stops further conversation dead. And, indeed, it’s true that she hasn’t read it – at least not between hard covers. But she read the draft chapters in manuscript, and made comments; and she read the whole book at the page proof stage, and made comments.

I spent the bulk of the first eighteen months of research interviewing her on and off tape, sometimes as often as two or three times a week. In that same period I went through her papers, which tuned out to be voluminous, but wholly unorganised – a marvellous lucky dip in which a piece of French lace made by Janet in hospital would turn up wrapped in a shopping list; or a letter from Philip Roth or May Sarton attached to a lawn-mowing receipt.

I spent about another year doing further research in New Zealand, interviewing friends and family, chasing up correspondence and other documents; and six months doing the same in the United Kingdom and the United States. Everybody I hoped would talk to me did so, barring two people. And one of those two was the Irishman in London whom she calls Patrick Reilly in the autobiographies and who, even though he is an octogenarian, displayed extraordinary cunning and stamina in managing to avoid and outwit me at every turn when I was in London.

By the beginning of 1998 Janet had returned to Dunedin, the city in which she had been born, joking as she did so – though one is never quite sure about this – that she was moving for the benefit of her numerous shifts, it might otherwise lack. I was fortunate to hold the Burns Fellowship at Otago University for the following eighteen months in the same city – allowing me to write the text of the biography in that close collaboration we had agreed upon.

Originally I had intended to do what David Marr had done in the case of his biography of Patrick White. Write the manuscript in consultation with my subject but not hand it over for inspection until a first draft was finished. But I began to have nightmares about what might eventuate. Supposing I did that, and Janet read the text, and found the totality of it in one reading too much for her. Might she then not smile and say to me, after four-and-a-half year’s work, “Oh, I don’t think so. Let’s wait until I’m dead.” And this at a time when I had dated contractual obligations to publishers in four different countries.

To avoid this outcome, which would have generated enormous difficulties for everyone involved apart from Janet, we adopted a different procedure. I would draft two or three chapters, give them to her, leave them with her for about a fortnight while she read and thought about them and sometimes annotated them. Then I would return and we would discuss them. Sometimes I had made errors of fact, which we then corrected; sometimes she thought I had made errors of fact, for which I would then produce the evidence. Sometimes she suggested to me that some episodes were too raw or too intensely private to permit publication, and I would either modify my account of them or remove them altogether. Sometimes I would have made a decision of this kind before submitting the relevant draft chapter to her.

Whenever another living person was involved in the narrative I allowed them to see what I proposed to publish, and I sometimes modified those passages if they made fair or illuminating comments of an elaborating kind.

Does this make the book an “authorised” biography? Not quite. It is a biography written in consultationwith its subject, because that is the onlyway in which it could have been written satisfactorily in her lifetime. The secondary literature was so riddled with error [20 errors of fact in The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature] that only Frame herself could provide a clear foundation of reliable fact upon which narrative and analysis could be built. Only Frame could ensure that her family and friends would cooperate with a biographer. Only Frame could authorise access to her correspondence and permission to publish copyright material. Only Frame could release her own photographs for publication.

But the suggestion of one reviewer, one of Frame’s would-be-biographers, that I have sat on her knee like a ventriloquist’s dummy and voiced only those aspects of her life which she alone wanted to show the world, is preposterous and wrong. Iwrote the text; I proposed what should or shouldn’t be there; and Imade final decisions about what would or would not be in the text. And sometimes I made those decisions in the face of Frame’s opposition. It is very much to her credit that she not only consented to relive with me some of the most painful episodes in her life; but she also recognised my right, as a fellow professional, to make ultimate decisions about treatment and content.

An author’s note at the front of the book draws attention to the two proscriptions which Frame requested, and to which consented: that the book not be a “critical” biography, in the sense of an analysis of her writing; and that I not quote verbatim from my interviews with her.

Let me deal with the second of these requests first (and I might say that I regarded them as “requests”, or as preferences”, not as conditions). Frame has a phobia about microphones and cameras. Whenever she has been recorded speaking in the past, she has either listened to herself as she was talking and thus become too intensely self-conscious about what she was saying, and simply dried up; or she has forgotten to listen at the time and don so later, at the time of broadcast, and then been horrified at what she saw as the inadequacy of what she said or how she said it.

Her preference now is not to be recorded at all. When I said to her that I needed a record of my conversations with her, and that I would use them as memory aids and not for verbatim quotation, she was then able to abandon any degree of self-consciousness and to speak freely and fluently. And the tapes are marvellous. So I got what I wanted and needed in terms of information and context from her; but I got it on the condition that I not use that material directly. In fact, when I asked her if I could quote sections of the taped conversations that produced information or documentation I could not find elsewhere – such as the account of her moment of near-despair in Avondale Hospital in 1952 – she agreed that I should and I could.

The business about the lack of critical analysis proved to be rather more problematical. I took it that this was what she was requesting when, in my first taped interview with her for the book, we had an exchange that went thus:

MK: What about analysis of your writing, saying what it “means”?

JF: No no no. Just the fact, please , just the facts.

In one sense this suited me. I come at biography out of the discipline of history, not literary criticism. A “life and times” was what I wanted to write, and what I was best equipped to write. It would provide a reliable factual infrastructure on which to base future critical biographies. And some reviewers speculated that that background of mine was one that best suited Janet Frame too, given her frequently expressed derision of what most critics have made of her writing (she described such criticism on one occasion as “works of art with my own book lying as a shrivelled skin beside the newly-sprung essay”: and on another she likened the self-satisfaction of critics to that of Little Jack Horner triumphantly extracting plums from the pudding in front of him and telling everyone what a good boy he was for so doing.)

Frame made no adverse comment about my Author’s Note at the time she read either the draft of the biography or the page proofs. But, to my astonishment, in the one radio interview she gave to coincide with publication, she said that she had no such objection to critical analysis and that I must have misunderstood something she said. This puzzled me. And I have still not had any explanation from her about why she changed her mind or believed that I had misunderstood her.

All of this does, however, raise the question of whether or not a writer is compromised in the process of becoming an “authorised” or an “approved” biographer; and whether it is preferable, on methodological and ethical grounds, to be that wholly free agent, the “unauthorised” or “independent” biographer. There are no straightforward answers to these questions, particularly when one is referring to biographies of living subjects.

Yes, in an ideal world biographers should have access to all relevant source material about their subjects’ lives, and copyright permission to quote from their subjects’ writings, especially if those subjects are themselves writers. But we don’t live in an ideal world.

Writing about a living subject such as Janet Frame, it was essential that the biographer was able to interrogate her about all those aspects of her life that were unknown to outsiders, or which had been inaccurately portrayed in previously published material. Janet Frame was never going to give that opportunity to a biographer that she didn’t know or trust; nor access to her correspondence and permission to quote from both letters and published work.

And of course such privileged access implies a trade-off on the part of the biographer, who is going to be unwilling to damage or to distress the person who has granted the access and, in the process, also dispensed copious quantities of hospitality and good fellowship. The biographer in these circumstances is unlikely to want to bite the hand of a subject who has, quite literally, fed him. Or, to put it another way, the biographer gives away some rights; but in doing so gains access to materials and opportunities that enrich and enhance the text of the narrative.

Circumstances which may cause a biographer so bound to hesitate to publish evidence, at least in a primary biography written when the subject is still alive, include instances of – and the effects of – incest, alcohol abuse, physical abuse, illegitimacy, insanity and suicide. Anne Stephenson, one of several biographers of Sylvia Plath, writes: “Any biography of Sylvia written during the lifetimes of her family and friends must take their vulnerability into consideration, even if completeness suffers as a result.” I agree. But I also note that Stephenson was pilloried as a consequence of this scrupulousness and accused of having sold out her integrity as a scholar in exchange for the regard of Ted Hughes, his sister and his children.

Almost every biographer at some time encounters circumstances that create dilemmas of this kind. Even to discuss them in public in anything like specific detail is to draw attention to the very factors one may have decided not to make public, out of consideration for the feelings, and possibly the physical or mental health, of the people most directly affected. One can say no more – except to affirm that there are times when revelation of previously unknown circumstances can precipitate problems of a far more serious nature than a temporary gap in the historical or literary record.

The professional and the scrupulous biographer is always trying to locate his or her subjects in the appropriate social, cultural and historical contexts. One is trying to indicate what makes the biographee “tick”. One is trying to shed light on motivation and character, and to identify and evaluate achievement. But one is trying to accomplish these objectives within certain constraints. One is aiming at what I would call “compassionate truth”: a presentation of evidence and conclusions that fulfil the major objectives of biography, but without the revelation of information that would involve the living subject in unwarranted embarrassment, loss of face, emotional or physical pain, or nervous or psychiatric collapse.

Although the biographer may feel at times restricted by such constraints, the compensations from a literary and scholarly viewpoint almost always outweigh the deficits. “Compassionate truth” implies working from the record and following evidence to whatever conclusions it indicates; but having at the same time regard for the sensibilities of living people, including the biographee, who may be characters in the narrative. And that conditions what evidence is cited and howit is cited; and what conclusions are reached and how they are expressed.

The whole process is analogous to walking a tightrope. But the resulting tension frequently tightens one’s narrative and increases its vibrancy. And the additional balance that can result from communication and trust between biographer and biographee can achieve highly worthwhile professional objectives.

But of course, a biography of, say, Janet Frame published in the year 2000 would not be the same as one published in 2020 or 2050. It could not be. Even apart from the greater freedom to publish which inevitably follows the deaths of all protagonists, the questions asked and the themes selected by another biographer in another era would be different. In this sense, the subjects deserving of biography never die: they keep on growing and changing with the changing perceptions and interests of successive generations of readers. Hence, as Virginia Wolf has said, and her life is an example of the process at work, biographies of major figures need to be rewritten for each generation.

There is nevertheless much of value that canand shouldbe said in the writing and publication of the initial or primary biography. Antony Alpers, mindful, perhaps, of his twobiographies of Katherine Mansfield, saw the nature of biography as a continuousprocess rather than as the sporadic publication of individual books. “That process may be spread over decades”, he wrote, “[and] leads to the emergence of an historical view of rather more than the subject alone; and this is merely set in motion by the… primary biography. That book has to be followed by [others]…”

Indeed. And it will also be the task of later writers to colonise the narrative and analytical spaces left vacant by the primary biographer. And in this manner compassionate truth is, eventually, compatible with and complemented by the dispassionate and disinterested variety.


Michael King is New Zealand’s leading biographer and historian. He has doctorates in literature and history, and spent the first half of 2001 as Visiting-Professor of New Zealand Studies at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. His most recent biography, of the New Zealand writer Janet Frame, won the Montana Medal for Non-Fiction.

This paper was delivered as the opening address at the Tasmanian Readers’ and Writers’ Festival, Hobart, 10 August 2001.


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