Leaping from the Frame

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The instructions to journalists were specific. At the Dunedin launch of the biography of New Zealand's most reclusive author, Janet Frame, there would be no interviews, and no photographs taken within 6 m of her. Even then, organizers feared Frame would stay away from the unveiling of historian Michael King's Wrestling with the Angel. But Frame-her trademark aureole of red hair tamed by the years to a soft white cap-arrived on time and sat, quiet and smiling, amid the throng. "She's just a very shy old lady," says Sam Henderson, who has often photographed Frame. "Because there's this image that if you give her a fright she'll scarper, people do stare and don't approach her."

After a lifetime of building an image that protected her even as it piqued public interest, Frame, 76, is allowing more of her life to be examined than ever before. The opening up began with her three-part autobiography, filmed by Jane Campion in 1990 as An Angel at My Table. In it, Frame sought to erase the stigma of madness: the persistent belief that the mental illness she feigned as an emotionally fragile young woman was real, and that it explains her singular creativity. King's biography, which is now a best-seller in New Zealand, goes much further, and is bolstered by the exhibition "An Inward Sun," at the National Library in Wellington, which illuminates with letters, photographs and rare interviews how Frame's work has been fed by faith in the redemptive power of the imagination.

"The image of Janet being the mad genius is deeply embedded in the New Zealand psyche," says King, 54. "There are many people who know her that way." Few of them have got close to the real Frame. King, who also wrote a biography of Frame's early mentor, author Frank Sargeson, first met the author in 1978. Frame's unexpected agreement in 1995 to let him write about her allowed him uncommon access to her friends, letters and memories, and fills in the four decades since the autobiography.

What emerges from Wrestling with the Angel (Picador; 583 pages) is a woman far more at home in the world than has been realized; well-traveled and connected, and enjoying the support of wealthy American patrons. The still-fragile former psychiatric patient of the early '60s is by 1969 swapping "fantastical and bawdy notes" with author Philip Roth at Yaddo, the exclusive American artists' colony where she stayed five times between 1968 and 1982. Resettled now in Dunedin after decades avoiding the ghosts of earlier years there, she spoke of her life "in a tone that acknowledged past tragedies but seemed more frequently to tremble on the brink of laughter," writes King.

Wrestling with the Angel covers familiar ground. There's Frame's claustrophobic upbringing among five siblings in small-town Oamaru, the tragic drownings of two of her sisters, the development of her "allergy to people" and her peculiar "imaginative light, a bright light without shade," which helped her to create order in a chaotic world.

But King also provides important new insights, particularly when it chronicles Frame's 55-year friendship with Professor John Money, an ambitious young psychologist (later a notorious sex therapist) who was disguised by a pseudonym in her autobiography. Money, who met the budding author in Dunedin in 1945, was instrumental not only in establishing her career but also in creating the Frame myth. He counseled Frame, rescuing the short stories that became her first published book, The Lagoon (1952). But his attempted Freudian analysis of his infatuated client unwittingly pushed the author into a decade of psychiatric hospitalization during which she endured electroconvulsive and insulin therapies, and narrowly escaped a lobotomy.

It was not until she traveled overseas in the late '50s and had her first, belated experience of adult freedom that she met Dr. Robert Cawley, a London psychiatrist, who overturned earlier diagnoses, including schizophrenia, and enabled her to accept that her creativity could coexist with sanity. Four decades later, she has yet to convince the wider public. King's book should finally separate the facts of Frame's life from the myth. But in doing so, it may have done her a disservice. Says Frame's long-time friend and fellow author, C. K. Stead: "She's much more peculiar and stranger, richer and more complex than the book gives the impression of her being."

Wrestling with the Angel refrains, by mutual agreement, from attempting any critique of Frame's oeuvre, which includes 11 novels, five short-story collections and a book of poetry. Such an analysis would complete our picture of Frame, says Stead: "She's a very important figure, and I think New Zealand literature would be much poorer without her, but it would be richer if it had a criticism that could cope with her."

Despite her cooperation with the biography, Frame seems more wary of public scrutiny than ever. "The shock of having my life and correspondence revealed will never be softened," she said in her only interview about the book, with friend and radio producer Elizabeth Alley. "A live subject is dealt many brutal blows." Indeed, it seems that this would-be recluse will continue to excite curiosity in proportion to her desire to be left alone.