From a tale of corrupted adult natures to another of childhood innocence. Like many, I first came across Janet Frame after watching Jane Campion’s film, An Angel at My Table. Then read her autobiography published under the same name. If you haven’t read it, why not? My God! And when you discover that she received electroshock therapy in 1940s New Zealand after a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and was then scheduled to have a lobotomy – only to be reprieved at the last minute because her first story collection had won a literary award – well, then you think, at least in this one case fiction actually achieved something. At least this time it really mattered. My favourite novel of hers is The Edge of the Alphabet, which conjures a drab post-war London now long gone. My favourite short story is this one, ‘The Bull Calf’.
Frame not only had to contend with mental illness, but struggle with rural poverty too. It seeps across every page – the fraying clothes, the toe and heel plates fixed to her shoes, the home-made sanitary towels made from torn-up old sheets. Every morning she has to milk the cow before school, and the cow’s usually wandered off, miles away. Resentment seethes inside Olive Blakely, Frame’s stand-in for this story, but it’s never overdone. (That’s one of the best aspects of Janet Frame’s writing – there’s never a feeling that she has to strive for an effect. Nothing’s overcooked, it’s all so natural). One day, in the darkness, she comes across two men attacking the bull calf that lives in a nearby field. At least that’s what they seem to be doing. In fact they’re neutering it but she’s too young to understand. Her father and mother won’t tell her what’s going on and seem embarrassed when she starts crying and telling them that the bull calf’s bleeding to death. Now for the strange and memorable twist: a Chinese family is visiting (and where have they come from? How many Chinese people could there have been in 1930s South Island, NZ?) and the young man of the family hands her a bowl of water containing a narcissus: “You have it. It is for you.” Taking it upstairs, she “touched the petals gently, stroking them, marvelling again at the transparency of the whole flower and the clear water where every fibre of the bulb seemed visible and in motion as if brushed by secret currents and tides.”
Curiously, I was in New Zealand when Janet Frame died. Suddenly portrait shots of this reclusive writer were on the covers of big-circulation magazines, smiling and radiant, as if her story had had its happy ending after all. Yet the feeling I got was that still no-one really knew what to make of her; some part of her awkward personality continued to embarrass them to the end. (By ‘them’, I mean the general public, whoever they might be). Her work was badly stocked in the bookshops and nowhere to be found in the second-hand stores. Despite her success, the books themselves had hardly flooded the market. Well, who wants to read about poverty, about being strapped down for enforced electroshock therapy, and who, above all, wishes to be reminded that we New Zealanders came within a whisker of slicing off a part of a young woman’s brain, a young woman who happened to be our most gifted writer in a hundred years? Easier to just forget it – and her! So said the general public. But long live Janet Frame – says I.
From The Reservoir, The Pegasus Press, 1966. Collected in You Are Now Entering The Human Heart, The Women’s Press, 1984