Janet Frame

Award-winning author

Nene Janet Paterson Clutha, better known as Janet Frame, could truly have claimed that writing saved her life. One of five children from a working-class Scottish New Zealand family, two of her sisters drowned in separate incidents and her brother, George, had frequent epileptic seizures.

Those traumatic occurrences set the tone for much of Frame's early adult life; training to be a teacher, she experienced anxiety and depression which led to suicide attempts and, in 1945, admittance to Seacliff Lunatic Asylum. The better part of the next decade was spent writing but being repeatedly re-admitted to psychiatric institutions, where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and, in 1951, scheduled for a lobotomy.

The operation was cancelled when medical staff learned that Frame had, just days before, won the Hubert Church Memorial Award, then New Zealand's most prestigious literary award, for her first short story collection, The Lagoon and Other Stories. That marked a turning point for Frame who, later in the 1950s, lived and worked at the Takapuna home of writer Frank Sargeson, where she produced her first full-length novel, Owls Do Cry.

Frame went onto become one of our most successful writers, traveling the world, accepting residencies and winning numerous awards. In 1983, she was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to literature; on Waitangi Day 1990, she became the 16th appointee to the Order of New Zealand, our highest civil honour. Contrary to popular rumours, she was not a formal contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.


Frame's popularity surged in the 1980s when she authored three volumes of autobiography, To the Is-land, An Angel at my Table and The Envoy from Mirror City. These became the basis of director Dame Jane Campion and screenwriter Laura Jones' award-winning feature film An Angel at my Table.

Frame died in 2004, aged 79.