The first volume of Janet Frame’s autobiography begins with a chapter called In the Second Place:
From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction always toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth.
Janet Frame was a New Zealand author of novels, short stories, poetry, and this three-volume autobiography. She suffered from mental illness, including misdiagnoses that led to multiple psychiatric hospitalizations and time in institutions. (She was about to be lobotomized when the news came out that her first collection of short stories had won a national literary prize. The lobotomy was deferred.) You might know her from Jane Campion’s outstanding film An Angel at My Table, which is an adaptation of the autobiography.
In this volume, Frame works at telling her childhood. She was the daughter of a railway worker, the third of five children. She describes a life of poverty, of never having quite enough clothes or beds or food or books or money to go around. She also describes human tragedy, like the baffling, violent epilepsy of her brother and the death of one of her sisters. But the tone is matter-of-fact. These are the conditions she grew up in, often happy and sometimes sad. The real work of the piece is not really to consider even the very specific social conditions — poverty, health care — surrounding this one girl’s life. There are no generalities here. Instead, her work is to ferret out what made her who, precisely she is: ruler of her own Is-Land (as opposed to the Was-Land or the Future.) As she says in that first tiny chapter, these are facts, but also truths, and also myth.
Language is one of the main factors in the way Frame becomes herself. She reports her own childish mispronunciations (“warnut” for walnut; “God Save Our Gracious Tin,”) as part of her working through and understanding language. “I was learning words, believing from the beginning that words meant what they said.” The slow process of understanding that words do not always mean what they say — and, perhaps a worse betrayal, that adults do not always mean what they say — is a formational part of Frame’s childhood. She writes of certain words that are memorable in her life:
I remember learning to spell and use these three words: decide, destination, and observation, all of which worked closely with adventure. I was enthralled by their meaning and by the fact that all three seemed to be part of the construction of every story — everyone was deciding, having a destination, observing in order to decide and define the destination and know how to deal with the adventures along the way.
She writes especially vividly of learning to read, and the effect that novels and poetry had on her. One teacher was an especial poetry devotee, and helped to open Frame’s consciousness to the “other land” of literature.
This other land revealed to me by Miss Lindsay, whom we laughed at because her face was like a cow’s face, with a dew-lap, and she wore funny shoes with pointy toes, could contain all the unspoken feeling that moved alive beneath the surface of each day and night and came above the surface only in the way earthworms came, when there was too much rain; and these feelings were secrets that this new land could receive without shock or horror or the need for revenge or punishment; it was yet a private place.
Frame retreats more and more to this “private place,” through reading and through writing as well. She quotes the poetry and the songs that formed her, and she also quotes her own poetry (with a bit of a sardonic eye toward the sentimental and cliché-ridden verses of a high school girl.) Poetry is what helps her through her sister’s death, by giving her the insight that some poets wrote specifically for her own experience. And she constantly questions what is poetic: at first, it is a soft, romantic world, described by the poems she’s given at school and by words like stars, gray, misty, soft, deep, shadowy, little, flowers, dreams. But as she grows, Frame begins to desire a different poetics: one that would describe the actual world around her (Oamaru, not an English country churchyard) and describe real New Zealand experience.
This was a fascinating book. It’s full of life, of the little embarrassments and misunderstandings of childhood, of games and songs and naughty words and the struggle to put together a proper uniform for school. It considers how Frame’s own Is-Land of being and language was formed and furnished by her earliest childhood. The book ends with her acceptance to Dunedin Teacher’s College: “In early February, as a member of a Railway Family with a privilege or priv. ticket, I traveled south on the Sunday slow train to Dunedin and my Future.” I’m deeply interested in reading the next volume, An Angel at My Table, and finding out what that future looks like through her eyes.