I’ve moved into a new place. It’s furnished, even down to having a few books on the shelf in the lounge room. I’d heard of An Angel at my Table, so I picked it up and decided to read it.
I realise now that I’d heard of it because it’s been made into a movie. I haven’t seen it, but after having read the book, I can understand why it was made into a film. It’s an astounding story.
The story opens with Janet travelling from her hometown Oamaru to Dunedin where she is going to start training to be a teacher. The train passes Seacliff, a town famous for its institution for the mentally ill. I call it an institution because in those days, that’s what those places were. To call it a psychiatric hospital is, I think, to endow it with legitimacy that it probably didn't deserve. I don’t know much about mental health care, but I like to think that modern-day care has progressed from what is depicted in this book.
At the time, as she sat on the train, Janet wasn’t to know that she would end up at Seacliff. Living with her frugal Aunty Isy while training at Dunedin Training College comes with benefits — Janet loves her independence, but her loneliness is extreme. Her personality doesn't lend itself to socialising and she seems desperate to please others and stay out of their way. She is pleased when her parents tell her that Aunt Isy speaks highly of her as a boarder: “She says you’re no trouble at all, she scarcely knows you’re in the house”. Yet her urge to please people like Aunty Isy only feeds her loneliness as she feels less and less as though she can find her ‘place in the world’.
Janet is extremely shy, awkward and self-conscious. She doesn’t ‘fit in’ and she is harshly punished for it. After realising that she can not be a teacher, she attempts to take her own life. She is then declared schizophrenic and told that she will be an institution ‘for life’. I find it so amazing (and terrifying) that such a brilliant literary talent could have come so close to being snuffed out, simply because she had a personality that was a little bit odd. She is saved by her writing when one of her books is published the day before her scheduled lobotomy.
I found the way she described her relationship with her family incredibly moving. She loves them but hates them at once. She sees herself in them and she doesn’t like what she sees. In her mother, especially, she painfully recognises that she and her siblings drained whatever independence and personality her mother once had and instead created a self-sacrificing woman who lived only for her family. I can’t help but think that so many women (and maybe men too?) grow up seeing this in their mothers and struggle, like Janet does in the story, to come to terms with the responsibility they must bear for the transformation and theft of their mothers in this way.
I was astonished at the length of some of Frame’s sentences. Yet very rarely were they unwieldy or difficult to follow. I constantly tell my students to keep their sentences short, because long sentences are only do-able if you have mastered punctuation and grammar, and not many people have. Janet Frame certainly has. I don’t normally like novels that are written by poets because of the style that I often struggle with — too flowery, descriptive and slow for my liking — but I really enjoyed this book, and I have the utmost respect for the style of writing in it. I must admit I skimmed over most of the little poems. That didn’t seem to take anything away from the reading experience.