In this series, writers present the books getting them through these strange times.
Recently, I’ve found myself drawn to stories about women locked up. I’ve been reading Anna Kavan’s short fiction, in which protagonists are pursued by invisible enemies—nameless perpetrators of “some vast and shadowy plot” against them—and shut in asylums “where days passed like shadows, like dreams.” I’ve finished Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, in which two outcast sisters seek refuge from society’s taunts in a crumbling mansion. And I’ve returned to Katherine Mansfield’s restless diaries from the French sanitarium where she died of TB in 1923 (“Felt ill all day … rather like being a beetle shut in a book, so shackled that one can do nothing but lie down”). At a time when neither escapism nor consolation quite appeals, I think I’m enjoying these strange, claustrophobic books for their emotional intensity, their piercing portraits of dissolution, and their dark, absurdist humor in the face of despair.
In my quarantine household, we have a notepad by the bread bin on which we keep a list of the movies we plan to watch in our own indefinite confinement. Last week, we put on An Angel at My Table, Jane Campion’s 1990 adaptation of Janet Frame’s autobiography, which Hilary Mantel has described as “perhaps the most moving film ever made about a writer.” We meet Janet as a squat, determined child, with a frizzy mop of ginger hair. Over two and a half searing hours, we watch her flounder to find her place in a hostile world, from the unremitting tragedy of her childhood in the New Zealand coastal town Oamaru (a father who beat his children, a brother with severe epilepsy, two older sisters who drowned in separate incidents) to the grim unfolding of her twenties in psychiatric hospitals across the country. In 1945, age twenty-one, Frame was diagnosed as schizophrenic and incarcerated at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, where misunderstood patients were routinely condemned to electroconvulsive therapy. Over the subsequent eight years, as she wrote in An Angel at My Table, she “received over two hundred applications of unmodified ECT, each the equivalent in degree of fear, to an execution.” In 1952, while she was awaiting a scheduled lobotomy, it came to the attention of the hospital superintendent that Frame’s book The Lagoon and Other Stories had recently won the Hubert Church Memorial Award. He canceled the operation and Frame was released. She left New Zealand and spent her life living and writing in exile: some of the film’s last scenes show a suntanned, laughing Frame in Ibiza, enjoying a carefree love affair and creative productivity. She died in 2004 as a celebrity, her funeral broadcast live to the nation, her body of work regularly mentioned alongside that of Mansfield, for whose family Frame’s mother had once served as a maid.
Frame wrote Faces in the Water (1961) at the encouragement of a psychiatrist who had reversed the diagnosis of schizophrenia and declared her sane. Convinced that what others saw as madness was rather the symptom of extraordinary creative genius, he suggested she process her experiences by transforming them into fiction. The novel’s Cassandra-figure narrator, Istina Mavet, is confined to an asylum, for unspecified reasons. Removed from daily life, she sits trapped in a small single bedroom, gazing at the cherry blossoms through windows that slide open no more than six inches, while sinister staff in pink uniforms stalk the corridors, keys jangling on their belts. Each morning, the nurses announce the names of those scheduled for ECT: “the new and fashionable means of quieting people and of making them realize that orders are to be obeyed.” As they approach, Istina attempts to suppress any behavior that might mark her out as volatile: “to leave no trace when I burgled the crammed house of feeling and took for my own use exuberance depression suspicion terror.” She knows that “the doors to the outside world are locked,” so when her name is called, there is no escape: dragged from bed and locked in the observation dormitory, she can hear the faint sounds of the absolved clattering spoons at breakfast. As soaked cotton wool is rubbed on temples, floral screens are drawn down between beds, and pillows placed at an angle, the screams are snuffed into submission, and the patients begin to lose consciousness: “I dream and cannot wake, and I am cast over the cliff and hang there by two fingers that are danced and trampled on by the Giant Unreality.”
When Istina denounces the cruelty with which the most vulnerable patients are treated, one nurse scoffs: “Can’t you understand that these people to all intents and purposes are dead?” When a bright doctor suggests that “mental patients were people and therefore might like occasionally to engage in the activities of people,” the result is horrifying “socials” in which inmates are forced to waltz before an audience in a parodic performance that belies the very humanity it’s purported to affirm. Yet Istina refuses to have her “mind cut and tailored to the ways of the world.” Against stern instruction, she strives to preserve her imagination, and her empathy for those around her, in case “a tiny poetic essence could be distilled from their overflowing squalid truth.” Frame’s major theme, across her work, is the disassociation and anguish inherent in living on the threshold between the outside world and the “Mirror City,” as she called it, of an inner life. Her visionary protagonists suffer in a society that feels threatened by those who refuse to conform. Daphne Withers, the heroine of Frame’s debut novel Owls Do Cry, is a child whose imaginative world provides her with a refuge from the illness and poverty in her family; as she grows up, her spirit is sacrificed to an adult world in which poetic vision is an aberration, not a gift, and where doctors are prepared to modify her brain to make Daphne “be just like other people.” Reviewers likened the novel to Goya’s Disasters of War etchings or the work of Dostoyevsky for its exalted depiction of suffering.
Recalling her time at Seacliff, Frame wrote, “I inhabited a territory of loneliness which I think resembles that place where the dying spend their time before death, and from where those who do return living to the world bring inevitably a unique point of view that is a nightmare, a treasure, and a lifelong possession.” Frame always denied that her books were purely autobiographical. Yet as I read Faces in the Water, spending hours immersed in her shifting, poetic, dreamlike language, it’s clear to me that she’s seeking a literary form to express real truth. Instability and incoherence are embedded within Frame’s rich, associative sentences. Her writing is experimental in the most urgent way possible: in finding her voice, Frame—like Istina — is grappling for a way to survive. In 1947, after the death of her sister, Frame wrote from the asylum to a friend, “We are such sad small people, standing, each alone in a circle, trying to forget that death and terror are near.” But if we “join hands,” she suggested, “we have the strength then to face terror and death, even to laugh and make fun of being alive, and after that even to make more music and writing and dancing.” It’s a remarkably hopeful, generous vision from a writer who has visited the abyss of hopelessness and returned convinced of the power of art.
Francesca Wade is the editor of The White Review. Her book Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars is published by Faber in the UK and in the U.S. by Tim Duggan Books in April.