Harrowing insight into mental illness - An Angel at My Table revisited

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 January, 2015, 10:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 January, 2015, 11:32am

An Angel at My Table
by Janet Frame

Many writers have said they were saved by writing - and in the case of New Zealand author Janet Frame, this is no exaggeration. Labelled a schizophrenic, she spent eight years in and out of psychiatric hospitals where she received 200 electroshock treatments. She was scheduled to have a lobotomy - but just days before the procedure, her debut publication of short stories was awarded a national literary prize. The operation was cancelled.

An Angel at My Table is the second volume of Frame's trilogy of autobiographies and covers about 10 years in the 1940s, from when she left school until she set off for London. These are the truly dark years and her descriptions of her time in mental institutions are harrowing. The electroshocks were administered without anaesthetic and she described them as "the equivalent, in degree of fear, to an execution".

When The Lagoon and Other Stories (1951) won the Hubert Church Memorial Award - at the time one of New Zealand's most prestigious literary prizes - the psychiatric staff was stunned. No more lobotomy - and the period that followed was her most prolific.

Given her narrow escape from a lobotomy, it's no wonder Frame often said: "My writing saved me."

There were other angels involved too. Writer Frank Sargeson befriended her on her release from hospital and let her stay in a hut at the bottom of his Auckland garden so she could write. He also helped bring her to public attention. And Stephanie Dowrick, the publisher at Women's Press in London, was determined her talent should not be overlooked.

Frame wrote 12 novels, four short-story collections and one poetry collection that won dozens of awards, but 11 years on from her death at the age of 79, it is the three-part autobiography that she is best remembered for. While her fiction is poetic, her autobiography is immediate and captivating in the brutal frankness of her insecurities and the humiliations that she experienced.

Frame's story attracted the attention of New Zealand film director Jane Campion who had followed her fiction with curious interest but was gripped by An Angel at My Table, describing it as one of the most moving books she had ever read.

Campion made a much-lauded film of An Angel at My Table, which was released in 1990 and earned Frame a new generation of readers.