Janet Frame: “An Angel at My Table”

If you haven’t read Janet Frame’s work and if you haven’t seen Jane Campion’s film An Angel at My Table, you must rectify these oversights immediately.

You’ve likely heard of New Zealand film director Jane Campion – or at least seen one of her films. Probably the best known of them is The Piano, starring Holly Hunter. It won Campion the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1994. And you may have seen Campion’s adaptation of Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady, a film that starred Nicole Kidman.

But to my mind and sensibility, An Angel at My Table – based on New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s three-volume memoir – is a too-often-overlooked masterpiece. Reading Janet Frame’s work – whether the three-volume memoir or her short fiction – is a treat in and of itself. But Jane Campion’s film brings New Zealand to vivid life and immerses us viscerally in Frame’s difficult but ultimately triumphant and redemptive life.

Three actresses play Frame at various ages, from her childhood in a poor, working class family in Dunedin to her adolescence marked by devastating loss to her adult years, which take Frame to a psychiatric hospital, to England and Spain, and eventually back to New Zealand.

I won’t give away any more of Frame’s life story – you must watch Campion’s film or read Frame’s memoirs (or both!). But I will tell you this. Since An Angel at My Table is one of my favorite films (along with Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust), I insisted that my book and movie club watch it. As we watched the film together, my friend Karin kept exclaiming as Janet Frame endured one tragedy after another. Karin felt the film was unrelenting in its bleakness and sorrow.

But for me, Janet Frame’s story is ultimately one of triumph, redemption, and even celebration. The ending is my favorite part of the film: Janet Frame dancing in her father’s shoes, typing her work in a small trailer outside her sister’s house, and most of all, remembering how she and her sisters would sing the Robert Burns poem “Ah, ah! the wooing o’it.” Just typing those words – “Ah, ah! the wooing o’it” – makes me smile, as I reflect on what Janet Frame made of her life.

To learn more about this wonderful writer, visit the website of the Janet Frame Literary Trust or the multipage exhibit about Frame at the Encyclopedia of New Zealand website. You also might want to read Michael King’s book-length biography, ,Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame, or The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature’s biography of her. The Guardian published an excellent obituary of Frame when she died in 2004, as did the New York Times.

Don’t forget to leave a comment on this post! You’ll be entered into a monthly drawing to win a StoryWeb T-shirt if you do one of the following. 1) Subscribe to the weekly StoryWeb email, and leave a comment here (or on any other post!). 2) Subscribe to the StoryWeb podcast in iTunes, and leave a review on iTunes. (If you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review there, shoot me an email at linda@thestoryweb.com to let me know you did so!)

Watch:Watch a six-part New Zealand television documentary about Janet Frame. It features interviews with this wonderful writer. You’ll also want to watch the trailer to Jane Campion’s film and the short 30-second scene when the young Janet and her sisters sing “Ah, ah! the wooing o’it.”