Jay To Bee: Janet Frame’s letters to William Theophilus Brown, edited by Denis Harold (Counterpoint, Berkley, California, 2016), 464 pp., $45.20
All letters are performances. There is a writer and there is an audience. The relationship between the two is never static, but it turns in line with time and circumstance. Jay to Bee: Janet Frame’s letters to William Theophilius Brown is, very simply, a unique and continuous revelation. It is a correspondence which provides an intimate, extended perspective on Frame that exists nowhere else. There are opinions, descriptions, comments and perceptions that illuminate both her life and her work.
The book is intended to be the first volume of a correspondence which began in 1969 and continued to the time of her death in 2004. The bulk of the 500 letters were exchanged in the 1970s, the decade when Frame wrote Daughter Buffalo (published in 1972) and Living in the Maniototo (1979). The 136 letters and eight postcards included in this first volume begin in November 1969 and extend to January 1971, a period of just over a year, from one visit to the United States until the next. They have geographical origins that range from New York and Baltimore to Auckland’s North Shore and Dunedin.
Jay to Bee is the mirror of a woman in communication who is bridging the interval between one human being and another by acts of engagement, curiosity and charm. The perspective granted by intimate letters is not a commonality in New Zealand literary culture. While volumes of correspondence by Katherine Mansfield, John Mulgan, Frank Sargeson and James K. Baxter are available, generally belles-lettres, in the modern sense, tend to be neglected by both reader and publisher. Given their quality and biographical importance, it seems unconscionable that Frame’s letters, beyond a fairly small volume of comparatively more formal notes to Landfall editor and literary sponsor Charles Brasch, have had to wait so long for publication.
They are also an admirable corrective. Frame has reached a status in New Zealand literature where the myths of madness and movie have overtaken all else. Her now-notorious stints in mental hospitals, the global success of the autobiography/subsequent TV mini-series/movie, An Angel at my Table, and the popular biography by Michael King, Wrestling with the Angel: A life of Janet Frame, have all codified a particular legend: Janet Frame with her crazy electric hair, genius and bad teeth. Beyond this there are the short stories, novels and poems, somehow unapproachable, book-spines barely cracked, filed under ‘Art’.
The letters in Jay to Bee promptly reverse this situation. The day-to-day narrative of correspondence is informal and more revealing than the honed and finished work of an autobiography, or the third-person exposé of a biography. Rather than an undercurrent sensed in fictions and poems or filtered by a biographer, Frame’s letters are the stuff of everyday reality.
They are a diary of situations, moods, acts of performance, commentary and observation. The intimate and confiding tone reveals the humanity of an artist at her most open. The elaborated fantasies are fun. The wit is engaging. The frank admissions, ventured without barrier, are sometimes shocking in their unguarded honesty. They admit their reader into an unsuspected world. When Brown revealed to Frame in 1989 that he had sold the letters to a collector because he was anxious they be tended after his death (the collection eventually ended up in the Pennsylvania State University Library), Frame was disturbed by the incident. Although the correspondence resumed, Harold Denis, the editor of Jay to Bee, writes, ‘she forgave him but rarely wrote letters from then on, preferring the telephone, postcards, and eventually email’. Jay to Bee belongs to a privileged moment before a superintendent eye intervened.
It is therefore somehow fitting that the first letters of the volume are a continuation of the games and jokes of what Frame, a New Zealand novelist, and Bill Brown, a Californian painter associated with the Bay Area Figurative Movement, referred to as the ‘Baby Table’ at the MacDowell Artists Colony in New Hampshire, where they met in mid-September/late-November 1969.
During their residence, Frame and Brown found themselves eating together with writers Jo Carson and Elnora Coleman at a separate table in the MacDowell dining room, and established a clique at odds with the prevailing atmosphere. There were risqué limericks, shared fantastic jokes (the Peedauntal, for example, a device that could be strapped to a leg to take the urine of public speakers, lecturers or their listeners, when social obligations prevent them performing this natural function immediately), and a private language (the ‘pornograph’, for example, for the ‘phonograph’).
After this first meeting at MacDowell, Brown would host Frame for a visit in the Santa Barbara home he shared with his partner, Paul Wonner, also a painter and also associated with the Bay Area Figurative Movement. This visit, the first of a number, would cement their relationship. Brown, Wonner and their cat, Ned, frequently became the subjects of Frame’s fictional elaboration in the subsequent letters that were exchanged. It was a relationship that took place in reality, but it was also one that was embroidered by the imagination in the correspondence. Carnivorous plants lurked, pantomime dames visited, and the personalities of cats expanded to dominate their worlds.
It was also a cultural exchange as the New Zealand writer came in contact with two gay men who had friendships with artists like Christopher Isherwood, John Cage, Paul Hindemith and May Sarton, amid many others. It was a relationship which would bring Frame in contact with contemporary art-practice as well as its gossip.
However, as the correspondence developed it also became more personally revelatory. Frame’s relationship with Brown becomes more intimate. At times, the letters resemble love-letters in their personal concern and communicated minutiae. The jokes give way to sensitive observations and day-to-day recitations of activities. They are dense with the pleasure of appreciation. They are a privileged and engaging admission into that shared world.
Harold has kept a light hand on the annotations. Characters are given brief biographies. Page-notes are minimal and handy. Obscure jokes are explained in short footnotes, in the Introduction, or in an Appendix entitled ‘Concepts and Nicknames’. Necessary facts are summarised. The apparatus is entirely useful, but not intrusive.
This edition of the Frame–Brown correspondence also preserves another essential thing. It contains Frame’s collages, often compounded from the daily newspaper or pages of women’s magazines, which give a subversive note to the collection. These collages do not have the deliberate illogic or pseudo-irrationality of Surrealism; they have a much sharper political edge and purpose. Richard Nixon and the British Royal Family make appearances, among others.
Frame obviously devoted time and thought to these constructions, and their significance should be considered in that light. They are asides, interventions and commentary. They are also eruptions of anarchy – ribald, socially-pointed, disruptive and creative. Both the editor and publisher should be praised for their inclusion, even if the reader may wish to have a magnifying glass on hand for some reproduced pages.
Jay to Bee also contains a number of vivid human stories. For example, during the time covered by the volume, Frame stays with John Money, the noted ‘New Zealand born sexologist’, in Baltimore. Money had been Frame’s teacher of psychology when she attended teachers’ training college. He would later be involved in the diagnosis of her schizophrenia and subsequent treatments. It was a complex relationship.
It is fascinating to read Frame’s account of a stay in Money’s apartment in a beleaguered 1970s American city, beset by ‘urban blight’, a city behind barred doors. This depiction would later feature as a narrative strand in Living in the Maniototo. Frame was frequently alone in the house and Money’s work schedule and problems with keys meant she had to remain awake for Money’s late returns or leave a door unchained. The baying dogs in the city night and broken glass of the fictional version are revealed as being very close to the descriptions in Frame’s letters.
Between visits to the US, Frame relates, as she says, her ‘non-news of the Antipodes’. She undercuts her own talents. From new kittens to house-painters, visits from James K. Baxter’s wife Jacquie, discussions of Charles Brasch, Frank Sargeson and Baxter himself (amid a number of other New Zealand cultural figures), music, the feeding of waxeyes in winter, scone recipes and observations from her walks around Dunedin, Frame’s letters are packed with vividly told incident. From Jay to Bee ends, appropriately rounded off, just as Frame is about to leave Auckland for the US, where she is to stay once more with Brown and Wonner.
Frame’s observing eye is sharp, sometimes hard, but never less than illuminating. She has wide sympathies but she is no push-over. Her sense of amusement is frequently palpable. Her reflections upon herself are knowing, sometimes engagingly exasperated, but sure. Jay to Bee brings the reader closer to her than ever before. There is no attendant biographer or any sense of performing for a wide public. These letters are private admissions between friends, upon which it is a privilege to intrude.
In these letters to Brown, Frame’s opinions of New Zealand culture, both general and literary, delineate an era. She might refer to New Zealand as ‘a barren country for souls’, but her letters from a nation and a life where, she repeatedly insists, nothing seems to happen, demonstrate the breadth of her perceptions, the fertility of her own personality, her human engagement as a writer and her skill of communication. To read them is to be seduced, beguiled, delighted, informed and impressed.
DAVID HERKT is an Auckland-based writer and reviewer.