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Janet Frame: a biographical note

Janet Frame: a biographical note

In November 2003, the Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement, held in association with Creative New Zealand, were presented to Janet Frame of Dunedin for fiction; Michael King of Opoutere on the Coromandel Peninsula for non-fiction; and Hone Tuwhare of Kaka Point in South Otago, for poetry.

Janet Frame’s life has been well-chronicled in her award-winning, three-volume autobiography; the subsequent Jane Campion film of the books, An Angel at My Table; and in Michael King’s biography Wrestling With the Angel (2000). Born in Dunedin in 1924, she has returned to that city to live after years in Auckland, Wanganui, the Horowhenua, Rangitikei, and several periods overseas.

Despite financial hardship, the Frame family was rich in the love of language and literature and Janet Frame has said that “Words were revered as instruments of magic.” Her first collection of short stories, The Lagoon and Other Stories, won the Hubert Church Memorial Award in 1952.

In 1955, Janet Frame accepted an invitation from Frank Sargeson to live in an old army hut in the garden of his Takapuna home and she embarked on her writing career in earnest. Her first novel, Owls Do Cry (1957), received national and international acclaim and in 1958 won her the inaugural New Zealand Literature Fund for Achievement. From there, her career developed rapidly. Living in London as well as the United States for extended periods, she published five novels and a collection of short stories during the 1960s, closely followed by another two novels in the early 1970s – Intensive Care and Daughter Buffalo.

Living in the Maniototo, published in 1979, was followed by Frame’s acclaimed autobiography. Each of the volumes won prizes: To The Is-land (1982) and The Envoy From Mirror City (1985) won the Wattie Book of the Year Award while the second volume, An Angel at My Table (1984), was placed third.

Janet Frame has received numerous other awards and accolades, including an honorary Doctor of Literature from Otago University in 1978, the inaugural Turnovsky Prize for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts in 1984, the Frank Sargeson Fellowship in 1987 and the 1990 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for her most recent novel, The Carpathians (1988). Altogether, she has written 11 novels, five short story collections, a poetry collection and her autobiography. She is a member of the Order of New Zealand and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 2003, she also received an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Award.

In Wrestling With the Angel , Michael King writes that when Janet Frame was awarded the CBE, she said: “I’m pleased to be honoured for myself and for other writers, for it is a way of accepting writers into the esteemed company of athletes and accountants and thus recognising them as part of our daily life.” She did, however, admit “a modicum of regret” that she had not achieved “Dame Frame”.

Bill Manhire, reviewing An Angel at My Table in the New Zealand Times in 1984, wrote: “It is impossible to read this book without admiring, as well as her honesty, the extraordinary artistry with which Janet Frame has put her life on paper. She has a marvellous sense of the pace and patterns of experience ... ”

Sources include the New Zealand Book Council website ( and the Arts Foundation of New Zealand website (


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