Cover image for Wrestling with the angel : a life of Janet Frame
Wrestling with the angel : a life of Janet Frame
King, Michael, 1945-2004.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Washington, D.C. : Counterpoint, [2000]

Physical Description:
583 pages, 24 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PR9639.3.F7 Z75 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Relying on previously examined documents, including Frame's diaries and health records, King reveals the formative episodes of her life. Insightful, sometimes shocking, and always unforgettable, Wrestling with the Angel is a remarkable account of a writer who has been pushed to the limit by life and has pushed back, using the powers of her imagination to create extraordinary work.

Author Notes

Michael King is a writer and scholar. He was born in 1945. He is New Zealand's foremost scholar on the history of the Maori people and their culture.

King's book, 1000 Years of Maori History: Nga Iwi O Te Motu, examines the origins of the Maori, how their culture responded to the arrival of Europeans, and how it has continued to exist in the face of great odds. Maori: A Photographic and Social History is a comprehensive history using contemporary scholarship and a wide range of photographs to explore aspects of Maori life.

King has also written God's Farthest Outpost, a study that traces Catholicism in New Zealand and chronicles the effects of French, Irish and Maori mingling on its development. King received an honorary degree as a Doctor of Literature from Victoria University of Wellington in May 1997.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Fame has been both alarming and lifesaving for Janet Frame, New Zealand's best-known writer. Shy, private, and leery of the stigma of her incarceration in psychiatric hospitals, she finally lifted the curtain on her unusual life in the 1980s when she wrote the three-volume autobiography that inspired Jane Campion's film, Angel at My Table (1990). Then in 1995, Frame, at 71 the author of 11 novels and five story collections, invited King to write a biography free of critical analysis of her work. He complied, and now presents a meticulously researched and quietly lucid account that captures the strangeness and trauma of Frame's tragedy-punctuated childhood and the appalling brutality of the treatments she endured after a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia. Saved from a lobotomy by the arrival of her first book in 1951, Frame, whose affliction, as King so gracefully reveals, was simply an artist's porousness to the world, has subsequently been watched over by mentors and friends--her angels--who recognize and treasure her rare powers and the need for solitude her lyrical and psychologically acute writing demands. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Remarkable and resilient, Janet Frame is New Zealand's most accomplished writer. She's the author of 11 novels, dozens of poems and stories and three volumes of autobiography (including the work that inspired Jane Campion's film An Angel at My Table). Now in her 70s and having suffered a stroke, she is largely silent. In this rigorously researched authorized biography, fellow New Zealander King (Death of a Rainbow Warrior) looks back over Frame's anguished life. At her request, the bookÄwhich draws from previously unavailable personal documentsÄlacks critical literary analysis (although King does note that her writing conveys the "sense that reality itself is a fiction, and one's grasp on it no more than preposterous pretense and pretension"). But the focus here is not on Frame's works; instead, King describes her life as wordsmith and survivor. In effect two books, the first half of Wrestling with the Angel is a dramatic account of Frame's struggle to survive a painful and emotionally troubled life (two of her sisters drowned, and she attempted suicide) and to write. King details Frame's early lifeÄher travels into and out of psychiatric hospitals (where her anxiety neuroses were dangerously misdiagnosed as schizophreniaÄshe narrowly escaped a lobotomy)Äas well as the writing career she began in her mid-30s. In the anticlimactic second half of the book, he describes Frame's succŠs d'estime: the literary prizes she won, the money troubles that followed and her compulsive moving from place to place (five times in one two-year period), in New Zealand and abroad, which testified to the persistence of her unexorcised anxieties. King's biography is a competent account of an unusual lifeÄthough no replacement for Frame's autobiography. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

"The Frame sisters thought of themselves as Bronts: because they held, by right, `silk purses' of words; and because their family was an anvil on which disasters fell." Such tragediesDpoverty, an epileptic, alcoholic brother, two sisters who died of heart failure while swimming, a third sister misdiagnosed a schizophrenic and hospitalized for almost ten yearsDmarked the early life of Janet Frame, New Zealand's greatest modern writer. With Frame's cooperation, fellow New Zealander King (Death of a Rainbow Warrior) has written a sympathetic and comprehensive biography, incorporating Frame's diaries, hospital records, and letters as well as quoting extensively from her memoirs (later adapted by Jane Campion into her marvelous film, Angel at My Table). Frame's story makes for dramatic and fascinating reading (she narrowly avoided a lobotomy when her first short story collection won a prize); unfortunately, there is very little analysis of how Frame transformed these painful events into literary works of great beauty and originality. This is not quite King's fault as Frame requested that he not critique her work. Still, King does U.S. readers a great service by calling attention to a unique writer who should be better appreciated here. For larger academic and public library literature collections.DWilda Williams, "Library Journal" (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Frame (b. 1924) is New Zealand's most prominent writer and, indeed, one of the most prominent living writers in English; King is New Zealand's outstanding biographer. This combination results in brilliant biography, a classic study of a living writer. Part of King's success results from the relationship of trust and affection that developed between the two, part from the diligence and thoroughness King brought to his undertaking. The author bases the biography on information and letters supplied by Frame and her friends; at Frame's insistence, he offers no analysis of her writings. King succeeds in conveying Frame's personality and the details of her life more vividly and more compellingly than Frame herself in her somewhat self-conscious three-volume autobiography (1984-85; collected as The Complete Autobiography, 1990). He does an extraordinary job of depicting a personality split into contraries, timid yet uncompromising, living in a world of her own creation while simultaneously watching herself in that world and scrutinizing the external world. Frame's original vision has made her a writer apart and above, rather like Rainer Maria Rilke. Covering her life up to the turn of the 21st century, King gives the book a sense of gracious completeness that will not be lost even if Frame continues to write. All collections. J. B. Beston; formerly, Nazareth College of Rochester



Chapter One Railway People `The people are scotch,' mark twain said of dunedin, New Zealand, in 1895. `They stopped here on their way to heaven -- thinking they had arrived.' Twain's theology might have been suspect but his powers of observation were acute. Dunedin was celestially beautiful, lying at the head of a long narrow harbour. The pasture, groves of trees and dry stone walls on the surrounding hills hinted at an Arcadian version of Caledonia. And the city itself was Scottish in its appearance and in the ethnic character of most of its citizenry. Dunedin's street names, public buildings of brick and stone, church steeples, scattering of Queen Anne towers -- all made it seem more like Edinburgh and Glasgow than any other New Zealand settlement. Its very name was the Gaelic version of Edinburgh. And in pride of place in the centre of town, a fine bronze statue of Robbie Burns overlooked the Octagon.     Janet Paterson Frame, born in Dunedin on 28 August 1924, was an heir to this character and to the traditions that came with it. She was named Janet after a Frame aunt who died in infancy; and Paterson from the family name of her Scottish grandmother. From the first, she was known by the very Scottish diminutive of Jean, contracted further by her immediate family to Nini. Her childhood was soaked in transplanted Scottish culture. When her mother spoke of Resurrection Day, Janet envisaged a heavenly kind of Sports Day, with a brass band playing `The Invercargill March' and kilted pipers skirling `The Road to the Isles'. Even the Second Coming, it seemed to her, would have a Scottish--New Zealand flavour. The immediate history of her family explains how this eschatological vision developed.     Alexander Frame, Janet's father's father, was part of a chain migration that brought around 68,000 Scots to New Zealand, mostly to the southern parts of the country, in the nineteenth century. The first wave arrived in 1848 as part of the Free Church settlement of Otago -- an attempt on the part of artisans, farmers, farm labourers and domestic servants to escape `the gloom of Celtic twilight for the bright dawn of a new start in a new country', where organised British colonisation had been under way for less than a decade. Specifically these largely Lowland Scots sought to escape the consequences of economic depression, poverty and religious controversy that characterised Scottish life in the 1840s. They sought also to plant a settlement where `piety, rectitude and industry would feel at home, and where the inhabitants as a body would form a vigilant moral police'.     The second group of Scottish immigrants followed in the 1860s to join the rush to the Otago goldfields and build on the foundations laid by their predecessors. Then the third and largest wave arrived in the 1870s as a result of the colonial government's drive to recruit more hard-working immigrants. They too gravitated to those parts of New Zealand already settled by their compatriots. And they included Alexander Frame, a stoker from Hamilton in the Clyde Valley, whose four older brothers had chosen to go to Canada and the United States. Alexander disembarked at Port Chalmers and was directed eighty miles to the north, to the coastal town of Oamaru, then burgeoning with a prosperity induced by wool and grain. Mary Paterson, who had begun work in a Paisley cotton mill at the age of eight but arrived in New Zealand as a domestic servant, followed him. She had come to New Zealand in 1874 on the maiden voyage of the Mairi Bhan . Her daughters believed that she had conceived a child en route for New Zealand and that the infant had died. True or not, she was unencumbered in May 1877 when she married Alexander Frame in Oamaru. He was twenty-three and literate; she twenty-one and uneducated.     Alexander established himself as a blacksmith and he and Mary had eight sons and four daughters, all born in Oamaru. In 1899, when the youngest were still infants, they shifted close to Port Chalmers where Mary, now able to read and write, acted as midwife. Port Chalmers was the deep water port for Dunedin; and Dunedin was the centre and dispersal point for the Scottish settlement of Otago. An explosion of wealth generated by the gold rushes of the 1860s had made it for a short time New Zealand's largest city and commercial capital. A grain boom in the late nineteenth century and the establishment in Dunedin of some of the country's major manufacturing and mercantile firms ensured that, as the gold bonanza waned, it remained a city of character and solidity.     The transplantation of Scottish names and influences had fanned out from Dunedin into the southern provinces of Otago and Southland, both of which would provide homes and work for Alexander and Mary Frame's children. In some instances, such as Strath Taieri and Glen Tiaki, the Scottish names combined with those of indigenous Maori. The stone walls around Otago Harbour and stone cottages in Central Otago were further indications of an attempt to transform an otherwise alien landscape into something that resembled rural Scotland. And the settlers chose to introduce trout and salmon for their food value rather than -- as had occurred in the rest of the country -- game birds for sport. Caledonian Societies and pipe bands kept alive the trappings of Scottish culture, especially its music and dancing. Even 150 years after the beginnings of Scottish occupation, the cultural sediment was there still in the wintertime sport of curling and the burred sound of the Southland `r'.     The New Zealand Frames were saturated in these early influences. They were part of a community of around 160,000` first-generation Scottish New Zealanders. Alexander and Mary relayed stories from the old country itself--though with the dourness characteristic of their people, they were not as communicative nor as chauvinistic as their fellow Gaels, the Irish, who were less numerous than Scots in the south. The Frame children,Janet's uncles and aunts, threw themselves with enthusiasm into competitions organised by the piping and dancing societies and frequently carried home trophies. And they listened to and recited the work of their own bards, the sometimes excruciating verses of immigrant poets determined to be the Burnses of the New Scotland: Though dear to my heart is Zealandia, For the home of my boyhood I yearn; I dream, amid sunshine and grandeur, Of a land that is misty and stern; From the land of the Moa and Maori My thoughts to old Scotia will turn; Thus the Heather is blent with the Kauri And the Thistle entwined with the Fern. George Samuel Frame, Janet's father, had been born in Oamaru in 1894, second-to-youngest in his family. In Dunedin he became, with his parents' encouragement, an accomplished piper. He would also fish South Island lakes and rivers for trout and salmon, able to do so because of the `Queen's Chain'. This was an area twenty-two yards either side of most bodies of water to which access had been guaranteed in law by a Scottish New Zealand Minister of Lands, Jock McKenzie, who was determined to avoid the game regulations which made fishing and hunting in Scotland the preserve of the privileged. George's other favourite pastimes, unusual for a New Zealand man, included embroidery (`fancy work'), making rugs and working leather -- activities which his family viewed as a continuation of the skills of the Flemish weavers from whom the Frames were said to descend through five hundred years' occupation of the Scottish Lowlands.     By 1901 Alexander and Mary Frame had moved into the centre of Dunedin, possibly out of consideration for their younger children's education. George went to Albany Street School, only two blocks away from the family home in Hanover Street. He gained his proficiency certificate in the sixth standard and was selected for a group photograph of the school's `Good Workers'. Then he sought casual work until he was old enough to learn a trade. His first job was to create sound effects, including galloping horses, for silent films in a Dunedin cinema.     Eventually, aged eighteen, George was able to join the railways, a government department for which his father had worked as a blacksmith in 1907. Railways offered a working lifetime of security in addition to a variety of benefits such as family travel concessions, accommodation in isolated communities, annual picnics and superannuation. As was customary at this time he started at the bottom, as a cleaner, with the opportunity to work his way through the ranks, with training and examinations, to echelons of better paid and more highly respected positions.     In May 1913 he was posted to Christchurch, and then to Taumarunui in the centre of the North Island, where he cleaned heavy black coal-powered locomotives. In 1914, the year the First World War broke out, he went to Wellington as an acting fireman. In May 1914 he returned to the South Island, to Picton, on the opposite side of Cook Strait. There he became friendly with a fellow railways worker, a local named Billy Godfrey. And at Billy's home, in the idiom of the day, he `met his fate' in the form of Billy's sister Lottie Clarice Godfrey, a beaming and buxom young woman two years his senior.     While the Frames descended from Scottish artisans, the Godfreys were largely English in origin and identified among their ancestors gentry and establishment figures: Anglican clergy, an Oxford don, an admiral, and a surgeon who made a fortune by concocting from opium, brandy and bitters what became the most successful painkiller of its day, `Godfrey's Cordial'. This last was Dr John Godfrey, born in Oxford in 1799, who numbered the invalid poet Elizabeth Barrett among his well-to-do patients. One of his sons, also John, emigrated to New Zealand in 1850 and, known as `the Duke', became a forceful local body politician who founded a provincial newspaper (the Marlborough Express ) and owned a general store in the main street of Picton. His son Alfred, a blacksmith like Alexander Frame, was Lottie's father. Alfred's wife, Jessie Joyce, was the stepdaughter of one of Cook Strait's most colourful characters, a ship's captain, pilot and former whaler named James `Worser' Heberley, whose first wife and family had been Maori.     While some families managed to better themselves through emigration to the colonies, the Godfreys' position -- at least in the case of Lottie's branch of the family -- had slipped. After raising nine children, Alfred Godfrey had few resources with which to equip his descendants. The nearest his daughter Lottie came to establishment figures was being employed by them as a domestic servant. She worked successively for a dentist, a magistrate, and -- most memorably -- for Mrs Mary Beauchamp, paternal grandmother of the writer Katherine Mansfield. Arthur Beauchamp, Mary's husband, had been a member of the Marlborough Provincial Council at the same time as Lottie's grandfather, John Godfrey. It was possibly this association which secured Lottie a job with the family. In the years before the First World War she met Katherine, her siblings and her parents when they came to Picton for summer holidays with old Mrs Beauchamp. Lottie was four years younger than Katherine and the same age as Jeanne, the youngest Beauchamp daughter. She would speak of the family with admiration for the rest of her life and in particular of Katherine, whose writing career came to a premature end with her death from tuberculosis in France in 1923, the same month her businessman father, Harold Beauchamp, was knighted.     The Beauchamps were not Lottie's sole association with a `literary' family, however. During the First World War, while her husband was overseas, she worked for Willi and Sara Fels, members of a wealthy Jewish merchant family in Dunedin who valued cultural activities highly and endowed the arts generously. They were also grandparents of the future poet and editor Charles Brasch, whom Lottie met with his sister when they came to visit or to stay with the Fels.     Whatever the material circumstances of the Godfreys, there was no shortage of cultural riches among Lottie's siblings. They knew about their antecedents and, unlike the older Frames, talked of them endlessly (Janet Frame was to write of her mother `haunting' her children with tales of ancestors, the pioneers, shipwrecks in the Marlborough Sounds, life at the Maori pa at Waikawa). They were highly musical and played a variety of instruments. They were lovers of nature -- of flowers, trees and birds especially -- and were demonstrative of their affection for one another. There was poetry in the family too: Lottie's maternal grandmother, Charlotte Nash, had written a book of verse at the age of 18, before sailing from Kent to New Zealand. Lottie and her sisters read widely, memorised poetry, and wrote their own.     After the conversion of another of Lottie's brothers, Lance, to Christadelphianism, his whole family abandoned Anglicanism in favour of this sect. Hence they rejected such notions as the Trinity, churches and clergy. They met to preach and pray in one another's homes and anticipate the imminence of the Second Coming of Christ. They condemned the taking up of arms. And Lottie, in a refinement she particularly favoured, was a strong believer in the proximity of angels and would make strenuous efforts to communicate this belief to her children.     George Frame, an agnostic nominal Presbyterian like the rest of his family, declined to become a Christadelphian. And it was probably because of religious difference that he and Lottie married without their families' knowledge or consent. George had been transferred back to Wellington in October 1915. The following month he volunteered for war service as a sapper in the army's engineers corps. On 25 March 1916, one week before he sailed for the theatre of war, he and Lottie married in the Wellington Registry Office. Lottie informed her family by telegram. It is possible that the Godfrey parents never forgave them -- not simply because of the religious gap, or the secrecy, but because at the very time George went off to fight, Lottie's brother Lance was being pursued by the authorities as a conscientious objector. The gap between the Godfreys and the Frames was never quite bridged and Lottie would see little of her parents once her husband returned from the war.     George Frame, having responded to the call of King and Empire, was separated from his bride of one week for more than three years. He underwent training in Egypt, then worked on trench construction and maintenance with the New Zealand engineers corps on the Western Front from early 1917. He was invalided out of the army with pneumonia one month before the Armistice in November 1918. Recovering in hospital at Brockenhurst near Southampton, he fell in love with one of his nurses. He wrote to Lottie in New Zealand to say that he wanted to remain in England and be released from his marriage vows. She, who had already been waiting faithfully for him for nearly three years, refused. George returned to New Zealand in March 1919 and rejoined the railways, who had kept his job open and who appointed him a fireman in Dunedin in May of that year. According to his son, George lived at first with his parents because of the breach with Lottie, who was also in Dunedin, working for the Fels family. Only after his mother turned him out and insisted that he join Lottie did he resume his barely started married life.     Early in 1920 George and Lottie Frame rented a cottage in the working-class suburb of St Kilda, South Dunedin. They used his rehabilitation loan to stock the house with furniture (which remained `property of His Majesty King George V' until the loan was repaid). Alexander and Mary Frame lived just around the corner and would have offered valuable logistical and emotional support. Indeed, as children began to arrive, Grandma Frame was never far away. Myrtle Joan was born in December 1920; George junior, whom the family would call Geordie, in April 1922; another boy, stillborn and unnamed, in 1923. In August 1924 Janet Paterson, survivor of a pair of twins, was delivered at St Helen's Hospital by Dr Emily Siedeberg, New Zealand's first woman medical doctor; the embryonic twin had miscarried at an early stage of the pregnancy. Janet, however, drank enough for two: the only comment Dr Siedeberg was moved to make about her to the hospital staff and the mother was that `Baby Frame's hungry again.     When Janet was less than a month old her father, now an acting engine driver, was posted to Outram on the bank of the Taieri River, 17 miles southwest of Dunedin. It was a pretty township,' closely resembling a village in rural England -- its red roofs offset by the river and the trees and by the green acres of its market gardens'. The family would live there for the next three years in a railway cottage that had once been a shop, one of three which lay in a cul-de-sac behind Outram Station. It was from this cottage that Janet would accumulate the earliest sights and experiences that she would remember as an adult. I could hear [rats] going scratch scratch in the wall and I would cry out for my mother to come. My mother always came. She was big and fat and I poked her fat with my fingers whenever I slept in bed with her. She was warm in bed. I could hear her breathing in and out and every time she moved over I felt to see if she were still there. And then my father would come into bed. He smelt of tobacco that he kept in a brown tin on the mantelpiece. He had striped pyjamas with a tear in the back and he slept near the lamp so he could take charge when the burglars came ... [We] were very safe, the three of us in bed together. Janet's other memories from this time would include the walnut tree in the backyard, the byre with an Ayrshire cow named Betty, and a kerosene tin, her only toy, which she towed around on a piece of string. She was slow to begin talking. When she did speak, her first words were, 'Pick walnut up, Mummy.'     Because of Outram's proximity to Dunedin, the cottage was frequently crowded with visiting Frame relatives. Grandmother Frame stayed for long periods and helped Lottie with the children after Isabel May was born in May 1926. Janet's uncles and aunts constituted `an excitable family with a passion for detail and a love of home and hearth that helped to make the smallest expedition beyond home an occasion to recall in minute detail'. Hence there was much talk of their travels `up Central' (Central Otago, which Janet envisaged as a tall ladder with narrow rungs on which her relatives climbed into the clouds for the weekend or longer,) and `in the Maniototo', and of Middlemarch and Inchclutha -- all richly poetic names that Janet would remember as a litany of exotic locations and associations. `[There] was much coming and going and talking and laughing [and a] sense of excitement I felt but could not understand.' One source of such excitement was a fire in the Outram locomotive shed the month of Isabel's birth. George Frame received a commendation from his employer for helping to extinguish the blaze.     There were, too, intimations of less frenetic realities. As an adult, Janet would recall from this time `a grey day when I stood by the gate and listened to the wind in the telegraph wires. I looked up and down the white dusty road and saw no one. The wind was blowing from place to place past us, and I was there, in between, listening. I felt a burden of sadness and loneliness as if something had happened or begun and I knew about it. I don't think I had yet thought of myself as a person looking out at the world; until then, I was the world. In listening to the wind and its sad song, I knew I was listening to a sadness that had no relation to me, which belonged to the world.' A little later she and her siblings would experience a similar feeling of longing and homesickness when they lay on their backs and looked up at the sky.     By 1927 the Frames had lived in or close to Dunedin for almost eight years. This had given them easy access to the life of George's extended family. Early that year, however, George was posted one hundred miles to the south to Glenham, a small farming community among the low rolling hills of Southland As one writer has noted, ther are `few places on earth closer than this green isolation to the frozen continent of Antarctica.... It can be bitterly cold here. Sometimes you may feel that the drenching wind-swept rain will fall for ever. And then there are days when the air is still and warm, the sky a vast heavenly blue, and the light and horizon so clean and clear that they link you to the infinite, in grace as well as space.' (Continues...) Excerpted from WRESTLING WITH THE ANGEL by MICHAEL KING. Copyright © 2000 by Michael King. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.