'The girl in my garden': Frank Sargeson, William Plomer and Janet Frame.
But for the record I can say that her first sketches and stories had been collected and published some years previously; and in the hut she settled to write her novel, Owls Do Cry, which besides demonstrating again her very extraordinary gifts promised the work which now becomes more and more known. Perhaps I may say too, as much on her behalf as my own, that there were days during a year and a half when as writers we experienced the very deeps of poverty. [...] After about eighteen months and a fund-raising campaign, Janet Frame conformed to the established rule by departing in the direction of England, although with the Balearic island of Ibiza in further view: we had reliably learned that despite the Americans, living there for the time being remained relatively cheap. (1)
Frame herself has added substantially to this account in her second volume of autobiography, An Angel At My Table. (2) In a chapter entitled 'Mr. Sargeson and the Army Hut', she tells how Sargeson sought her out and invited her to move into his hut, arranged for her a medical benefit income of three pounds a week, and encouraged her to write. As she does throughout her autobiographies, she downplays the extent to which she was mentally disturbed at this time, saying merely that her years in mental hospitals had left her shy and intimidated:
Those early months of my stay in the army hut were an unforgettable experience of sharing with Frank Sargeson (I learned to call him Frank) details of our lives, ideas and feelings, the reading of books, the evenings playing chess (which he taught me) or of my listening to the conversation between Frank and his many friends who came to dinner. Most of all we shared a working life, I learning, with his encouragement, to organize my day. I was still pursued by fears of hospital and nightmares of my experiences there. I was desperately shy, just emerging from a state of intimidation. Frank was protective and kind. I did not realize until much later when I was writing many books, how extreme but how willing his inevitable sacrifice of part of his writing life had been. I realized also that protection of others, of one person at a time, one old or ill or disabled friend, with perhaps two or three others waiting their turn in the background, was a built-in necessity of Frank's nature, side by side with his writing. (3)
While acknowledging Sargeson's kindness, and writing of him with evident affection, Frame implies that looking after her satisfied a need in himself, and she eventually came to dislike the way Sargeson, a homosexual, sometimes disparaged women. (4) It may well be that Frame, deeply hurt by the experiences she had gone through in mental hospitals, and constantly struggling to cope with her mental turmoil, was largely unaware of the psychological cost to Sargeson of caring for her, or of the scars the experience inflicted on him, scars so deep that he preferred to avoid the episode in his autobiography.
Michael King's admirably thorough biography of Frame, Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame (2000) is by far the fullest account of Frame's time as Sargeson's guest, but in this book King naturally focuses on Frame's experiences rather than on those of Sargeson. In his earlier biography of Sargeson, Frank Sangeson: A Life (1995) written while Frame was still alive, King is cautious about the details he gives of her stay in the hut, mostly confining himself to quoting her account in An Angel at My Table. (5)
Sargeson's side of the story, however, did not go unrecorded. In the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, there is preserved part of the correspondence that passed between Sargeson and William Plomer, (6) an examination of which sheds interesting light on this important episode in New Zealand literary history. (7) A reading of it shows the extent to which Sargeson, himself poor, ill and emotionally vulnerable, protected and nurtured Frame at a time when she badly needed care, and it demonstrates his passionate concern for New Zealand literature in general and this gifted writer in particular, h reveals something of the price Sargeson paid, in loss of energy and time, for his care of Frame, it shows that the experience had a permanent effect on him, so that he was unable to respond even to writing about schizophrenia without a sense of exhaustion thereafter, and it suggests the extent to which Frame's work was influenced by Sargeson's at this time. It is no more than a shaft of light failing on a large and complicated relationship, but where so much is obscure even a glimpse may be of interest. The Plomer-Sargeson correspondence is of particular importance, in addition, because in it each man revealed more of himself to the other than either did to any other correspondent, perhaps because they were never likely to meet each other in the flesh.
There is some doubt as to exactly how and when the correspondence was initiated. According to Dennis McEldowney, Sargeson originally wrote to William Plomer, whom he knew to be a Reader for Jonathan Cape, and sent him a pamphlet containing some of his short stories, Conversation with My Uncle, printed in Auckland in 1936. Plomer, who liked it and responded with a friendly letter, passed the story on to John Lehmann, one of Plomer's closest friends since 1937, who in the late 1930s was editing a journal he called New Writing, and that in 1940 would become Penguin New Writing. (8) McEldowney gives no date for the start of the correspondence. In Michael King's account, Sargeson, urged on by his friend Walter D'Arcy Cresswell, sent 'Conversation with My Uncle' to both Plomer and Lehmann simultaneously, and Lehmann received his copy closely followed by a recommendation of it from Plomer. (9) King, like McEldowney, gives no date for this event, but it must have taken place in 1938, for Lehmann was to publish Sargeson's story 'White Man's Burden' in the northern autumn of that year. Sargeson subsequently became a regular contributor to New Writing and then to Penguin New Writing. Lehmann also published Sargeson's volume That Summer and Other Stories in 1946.
The correspondence with Plomer, if it began in 1938, lapsed until 1941 when it was reignited by the publication by Plomer of an enthusiastic review of Sargeson's volume of stories A Man and His Wife in March 1941 in Lehmann's journal. (10) He added, in an unpublished letter to Lehmann, 'I think I like best the terrifying "An Affair of the Heart" [...] and "The Making of a New Zealander", which seems to me a wonderful sketch of the deracine settled in a new country, and technically very skilful'. (11) Lehmann then suggested that Plomer should do an article on New Zealand writers, (12) and to facilitate this--since Plomer responded 'I only know of three NZ writers (living), but I've no doubt you have a whole regiment of them at command' (13)--Lehmann introduced him to Denis Glover, a New Zealand poet and publisher serving in the Navy. Glover knew Sargeson well and was in fact Sargeson's New Zealand publisher: he had read and admired Sargeson's Conversation With My Uncle when it first appeared in New Zealand, and when Sargeson made a visit to Christchurch in 1940 he had stayed with Glover, whose Caxton Press would publish A Man and His Wife later that same year. Plomer and Glover seem to have met for a meal on only two or three occasions before Glover returned to New Zealand for good, but he no doubt gave Plomer further information about Sargeson. At all events, the correspondence with Sargeson became friendly in 1941, and once revived in this way, continued for more than thirty years, until Plomer's death in 1973.
Although Sargeson and Plomer had been born in the same year (1903), Plomer had much the wider reputation in the 1940s, as a poet, novelist, essayist, autobiographer and critic. He was born in South Africa, and had been educated partly there and partly in England, where he spent a year at Rugby. His first novel, Turbott Wolfe (1926), had been published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who in addition to publishing a further eight of his books (14) had introduced him to many English intellectuals. Since 1937 he had been one of two readers for the publisher Jonathan Cape, a position which brought him into the mainstream of the English literary world; he counted among his close friends Laurens van der Post, John and Rosamond Lehmann, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood, Harold Nicolson, the publisher Rupert Hart Davis, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, the editor and critic J.R. Ackerley, E.M. Forster, Ian Fleming (then still unknown as a writer) and the composer Benjamin Britten. In his quiet way he was a man of considerable influence. Sargeson (who at this time had published only two volumes of his own work (15)) knew and admired him chiefly as a poet, and his tone at first in the correspondence, in January 1942, is one of marked respect, and even of gratitude for having been reviewed by Plomer:
Just lately I have seen your article in New Writing & I'm afraid I felt quite overwhelmed. I had better just say that I hope it doesn't go to my head too much. It has at any rate prompted me into sticking closer to the new group of stories. I'm trying to do the best I'm capable of in the hope I won't let you down. (16)
From this rather cautious beginning the correspondence soon warmed, as it became obvious to Sargeson that Plomer was far from being a stuffy Establishment figure, that he and Plomer had a good deal in common, from their age and colonial births to their sense of humour, their sexual preferences and their taste in literature, and that Plomer genuinely admired and enjoyed Sargeson's writing. Soon Plomer was expressing his opinion of his contemporaries with a freedom that is very rare for him on paper (though he had a gift for hilarious malice in conversation):
The new editor of the Times Lit. Supp. is a red-hot R.C. convert (or pervert, as they used to call it) & the paper is full of the clash of rosaries & distant piddlings of holy water. Then some of the alerter writers of our generation--Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene--are also R.C.'s by adoption. It's depressing, I think. I do so hate being preached at. And I mean to go on standing on my own feet as long as I have any feet. (17)
The vigour of Plomer's judgements increased as his confidence in Sargeson's sympathy grew, so that within a year or two Plomer was writing,
I sent you lately a copy of a new book of stories by one Angus Wilson. (18) I don't like them, & I didn't like him on the only occasion when I met him. But they are obviously very clever, and so is he, and I believe there is a fashion for him in New York, where they think he is an authentic shower-up, or disemboweller, of the remains of the English 'upper' classes or something. They seem to me the work of a hysterical misanthrope & misogynist, screaming like an ape that can't get out of its smelly cage. But I shall go on reading him, for his cleverness. (19)
Plomer never trusted himself enough to let fly in this way at his contemporaries in correspondence with any of his friends in England, and one senses a relief and release, in his letters, at being able to say what he likes without the fear that Sargeson would pass any of these remarks back to anyone in England. For his part, Sargeson shared with Plomer his idiosyncratic and often very shrewd literary judgements:
I think taken all round I just don't agree with the [Henry] James revival. It pains me that he should have been what he was--and an American into the bargain. That the Americans should have produced two great things, Huckleberry Finn and Whitman's verse, and then gone all wrong afterwards, seems to me colossally disastrous--though Twain has the distinction of prototyping, with marvellous fidelity, the modern American in his little bore, Tom Sawyer. (20)
To these comments Homer responded,
About Henry James--I must admit that I've never been a James fan--so all this reprinting leaves me cold. It is certainly being overdone. I do not believe that J. can ever be 'popular' or even widely read, but he has, and deserves, & I hope he will go on having, a small & devoted following. It is to me a mystery that a man of such extraordinary intelligence & talent should have been content with such an artificial presentation of life, so remote, as far as I know it, from 'ordinary' people & what concerns them. (21)
This criticism extended to each other's work, Sargeson writing, on 5 April 1948, in response to Plomer's having said he was going to read his ballads to an audience of Oxford undergraduates, but that he was doubtful as to how they would go down:
I am sure your ballads did go over well. Do you notice many imitators yet? I'm sure you will in time--indeed, you have a poor one in me, and I send you a sample. [He enclosed a ballad entitled 'Susan', modelled on one of Homer's poems, 'Little Susan'.] But I think they are most valuable in several respects. I think it is really tragic that so few of the poets have been able to carry along Auden's ballad line for instance. Don't you sometimes think the only hope for poetry is to find a form of verse in which it is possible to use cliches? I think Auden pointed the way, and you do too.
And Sargeson increasingly discussed his own work and the difficulties he was having with it:
In writing do you find that you admire most those effects that you can't bring off yourself?. One reason why I read your books is because of those brilliant pictorial effects that you are always bringing off. E.g. Mrs. Pincus vibrating on the back seat of her car, or the negro woman with the flying tit. (22) Actually though, it's only recently that I've realized that I may have an imagination that is much closer to a musician's than a painter's. [...] In writing my new book, because it's larger in scope than anything I've so far attempted, I continually find myself getting balled up with technical problems. I am reluctant, e.g. to render anything that passes in the minds of the characters except the central one. Yet you in that Pincus story for a split second quite light-heartedly say something of what the old man is thinking. Perhaps a little disconcerting, but you get away with it. I think somehow it all ties up with whether you are working in a new cultural framework or not and perhaps it is very significant that so many modern literary techniques have come from America. Inferiority feelings operating and what not. (23)
The correspondence quickly grew friendly, with Sargeson matterof-factly and uncomplainingly telling Plomer of his poverty, his dermatitis and his growing loss of sight as the result of retinal haemorrhages. He was struggling with his first full-length novel: (24)
I'm afraid I've been suffering from a sort of malaise, mainly owing to the worry, I think, of trying to get the various patterns in my new book to come clear. It is always the same, though. Impatience with my own books makes me impatient with other people's--so I go back and read Aristotle's Poetics, and when I've finished it I wonder what the hell is the use of papers such as the New Statesman--when it was all said B.C. and said more briefly, very clearly and better. However. And anyhow, if no modern writer can write a book as good as Tom Jones, don't you think one might write one as good as Great Expectations? I read Gissing's Nether World. Very good. How absurd to draw parallels between him and Dickens. Dickens has little idea of people's relations, and how they act within those relations--and this is just what Gissing does know, very accurately. (25)
Plomer in return gave details of his own life, hinting at his homosexuality ('When I might have been practising paternity I was barking up quite another tree' (26)) telling of his carefully cultivated devices to avoid unwanted callers to his home ('deny them the use of the telephone; & then I am strategically fairly well-placed on a first floor, so that it's easier for me to look out & see who they are without their seeing me' (27)) and picking out his own weaknesses as a writer:
I have no ear for dialogue and no gift for inventing it--I only hear & remember stray remarks; I am, or have become, too 'literary' to create copious natural dialogue as you do. (28)
The flow of correspondence between London and Auckland was regular for three decades, and it was clearly sustained on each side by a genuine interest in and affection for the other. With the letters went food parcels from Sargeson (though he could ill afford to send them), English literary journals from Plomer, and a steady stream of books and manuscripts, each sending the other whatever he had recently read, written or published. Each must have built up a surprisingly detailed picture of the world the other inhabited, and this picture included their friends and acquaintances: Sargeson got to know about Plomer's companion Charles Erdmann, and Plomer heard a good deal about Sargeson's friend, the horse-trainer Harry Doyle, who shared Sargeson's home during his last years. Plomer also heard about the beautiful German girl, Renate Prince, a war-time refugee who lived in Sargeson's army hut for two years before going back to Europe in 1952, and for whom Sargeson nursed (or pretended to nurse) a hopeless passion, although he was thirty years her senior, writing to Plomer that she was 'The most beautiful/elegant woman in the world, the rarest kind of blonde. [...] I shall love her devouringly till I die'. (29) And, beginning in 1956, Plomer heard about Janet Frame.
Frame had first come to live in Sargeson's army hut in April 1955 at the age of 31, having spent a decade before that in and out of mental hospitals where she had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and subjected to repeated episodes of electroshock therapy. Sargeson took her in partly because he was a deeply generous man, and partly because from the start he believed in her talent and wanted to see it develop. In February 1956 Plomer wrote asking how the plays Sargeson had said he was writing were going, and whether he had succeeded in getting them performed. (30) Sargeson responded, on 5 June 1956,
Nothing much has happened so far, and instead of bothering too much I am plugging along with a third one. The details are much too boring--you would have a good idea of the bickering lack of intelligence and all the rest of it one meets in a small and scattered community. In any case for the past year I have been much preoccupied with looking after a schizophrenic girl who lives in my army hut. She has worn me down very severely, and at the moment I am trying to pick myself up on a diet of phenobarb and benzedrine while she is away for a short time--but she has written what I think is a remarkable book down my garden path, and there has been no difficulty in coaxing [pounds sterling]300 out of the State Literary Fund in order to assist with its publication. You shall see it later on--uneven perhaps, but on the whole remarkably beautiful touching crazy, and (most remarkably of all) funny. Still, I can't go on looking after her indefinitely and unless another sum can be coaxed to enable her to take a chance overseas, there seems nothing but the awful thought of her returning to Mental Hospital---and she has already had 10 years of that. But I have great hopes that the money may be granted.
'She has worn me down very severely': Sargeson suppresses the details, but it is clear that living with Frame had been a great strain for him. Just how great a strain emerges from occasional letters written by those in whom Sargeson confided: these make it clear that he was convinced that Frame was capable of killing him and herself. Denis Glover wrote to a mutual friend that Sargeson 'is terrified that she [Frame] will kill him or herself or go back inside. [...] I just don't know how mad she is, and Sargeson, not himself normal, is a fool in practical matters'. (31) Sargeson wrote to another friend, E.P. Dawson, 'Nobody on earth can be expected to put up with the strain all the time. In the last months I have felt over and over again I've been hanging by a thread over an abyss'. (32) Whether or not Sargeson exaggerated the danger, it is clear that he lived in fear of his guest. But he neither abandoned her nor ceased to do all he could to advance her career.
He was keen that Plomer should read Frame's work, and give an opinion on it. Though he would never ask for Plomer's help in getting any of his own writing published in Europe, Sargeson missed no opportunity of using his friendship to bring the writing of such New Zealanders as Anna Kavan and Karl Stead to Plomer's attention, (33) in the hope that he would recommend them for Cape's list. This was clearly his motive for mentioning Frame, too. When Sargeson wrote again of her, on 9 December 1956, she had finished her first novel, Owls Do @, in his army hut, and the money had been found for her to leave New Zealand for Spain:
I had hoped to have sent you off the schizophrenic girl's strange book, but there have been the usual delays & it still doesn't appear. Incidentally, the girl herself is now in Ibiza---& remarkably she reached there without mishap, except perhaps for the loss of her luggage (including her typewriter) while getting through Paris. But that she has got so far is indeed remarkable, & as for her belongings, well, I am busy at the moment raising a bit of extra money for her so that she won't be too depleted. When you receive the book do tell me what you think the chances of an English publication might be. I don't think any of us ever expect her back in New Zealand, but she might endure the pain of her disintegrated state for years, if only money can be found to keep her going. And of course she writes continuously--& the superbly beautiful page turning up surprisingly often.
Frame had spent some time in London on her way to Ibiza, where she did not call on Plomer, but it is clear that Sargeson had introduced her to his writing and that she saw London through Plomer's eyes. She wrote to Sargeson, 'I smile to myself as I look from this window on to Great Russell St, and try to pick from the passers-by the character from William Plomer's ballad 'A Ticket for the Reading Room'. (34) After a few weeks in England she had traveled on to Ibiza via France.
It was May 1957 before Plomer received a copy of Owls Do Cry, and he, one of the most perceptive of publishers' readers, gave a professional opinion on May 21, rejecting the book in part because he thought it too much influenced by Sargeson's work:
I have read Owls Do Cry with a kind of fascination. It is so real and so sad, like the sadness of the moon & of the night sky above the mountains & housetops in the picture on the jacket. I think it owes a good deal to your example. The family is made rather painfully real, & the use of surface detail, so minute and exact, serves to bring out somehow the whole atmosphere in which they live. I particularly liked Chick's diary in Ch:28. I find the book very feminine, and the work of a caged spirit, and I am glad to have had the chance of reading it. But I am sorry to say that the feeling at 30 Bedford Square [Jonathan Cape Ltd.] is that it is not a book which would have good prospects in this country. As you know, publishers now find it necessary to sell more copies of a novel than they used, & are disinclined to risk their money on books that don't seem to them likely starters. I think it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a publisher here now for this particular book, though I may be wrong. I suppose the reason is that it doesn't appeal enough to common appetites & is not sensational, topical, sexy, etc etc.
Sargeson was clearly disappointed by this verdict, but he admitted that Frame's work had been influenced by himself, and he replied philosophically enough:
Very kind of you to do what you could about Owls Do Cry. (35) My attitude to the book is a bit complicated by personal interest, plus what is called here these days 'the double standard' that's to say a work of art may have regional value which affects one's judgement when trying to look at it from some more distant standpoint. I think it's a real problem for a New Zealander in literary matters, largely because of the reputation Katherine Mansfield has overseas for what appear to him the wrong reasons. I by no means like all of Janet Frame's book, and I regret that her particular type of mental illness makes it necessary for her to borrow somebody else's form. But what I admire no end are her brilliant verbal associations--and they're not merely verbal or literary. I find them more truly rooted in what is actual than in any writer I know with a related talent. Of course I realise quite well it might be very difficult in present circumstances to find an overseas publisher for such a book. Thanks again for what you tried to do. The girl herself is now in a London mental hospital. I'm hoping it will be only temporary, but it is a great worry to me trying to be helpful in every way I can. I'm hoping I may soon arrange for her to return to Ibiza, where she was happy most of the time if I can judge by the brilliantly wonderful letters she wrote me from there.
Sargeson Passed on some of Plomer's opinion of her work to Frame, but diplomatically withheld Plomer's comment that she was too influenced by Sargeson. Frame was hurt nonetheless, and responded, '[You] tried to disguise from me the fact that Plomer etc. thought my work was bad, by saying it wasn't sexy or topical. Of course I shan't take any notice of that, and I am not going to entitle my next work Conversation with My Lover'. (36)
Sargeson continued to try to help her, though he had to work hard to persuade her even to let him see her completed work, which he wanted to help her place with publishers. On 27 March 1958 he was writing to Plomer, 'Janet Frame has set herself up in Kentish Town now, & I'm busy trying to diddle her out of some fresh work, of which she has a stack'. Instead of fresh work, she sent him some unexpected gifts:
My dear sweet good and crazy Janet Frame is still in darkest Kentish Town, and such odd things turn up in the post from her. Last time it was a tittle bottle of most pansily-scented snuff (perhaps I can offer it to the local waitresses--and barmen, seeing that barmaids in this country have so rigorously devoured their young that they don't exist any more) wrapped up in a copy of the Wolfenden report! (37) Her humour always bobbing up despite the most atrocious mental suffering is one of the most remarkable things about her, and I could wish rather more of it had got into that novel of hers. But who takes snuff these days?
By 21 September 1958 he could still report no real improvement in her situation, but though she was still in London, he was concerned that Plomer should not 'entangle' himself with her:
I might plague you if she came to light with what looked like a masterpiece, but the personal situation is up to a few of us who have got our lines tangled with hers. (Incidentally she has been fished out of the Thames lately by the water-police. Not a nice experience as you can imagine.) Perish the thought that I would ever want to entangle you personally.
He continued to keep Plomer posted, however, writing on 26 July 1960,
Janet Frame still goes in and out of the Maudsley [a mental hospital], but she has at last consented to part with fresh work, and Owls Do Cry has found American and German publishers.
And by the end of 1961, she was beginning to justify his muchtested faith in her. Her next novel, Faces in the Water, (38) was a success, and Plomer sent him a very favourable review from the Times Literary Supplement. On 5 December 1961, Sargeson responded,
My thanks for the TLS notice of Janet Frame. I expect you have read something about her success--I read about her everywhere, but she gives me few details herself (unfortunately she is as suspicious about what is called success as I am, and I am a little anxious whether or not it vail all end up for her with another bout in hospital. Incidentally, her last and jackpot book is not very good--as brilliant an opening chapter as you could wish for, but after that she falls down in the contest between the necessity for reporting and the endeavour to repress her imaginative quality--but of course she knows this quite well, she has a wonderful and wonderfully sensitive intelligence).
Once Frame had achieved a measure of success and no longer needed financial help, Sargeson's references to her grow fewer and less detailed, and he begins to bracket her with other writers whom he had not met, as if to show the extent to which he felt she was moving away from him. It is noticeable, too, that his judgements of her work become more dispassionate:
I wonder if you get on with Patrick White these days. I still find I just can't read him at all, but remain undecided whether this is to his disadvantage or my own. I rejoice in Janet Frame's success. She writes me many curious letters--and curiously they come now from a somewhat expensive flat in Kensington. I get very irritated over her limitations as a writer, but for a sentence or two she can break from them, and when she is at her best she is very good indeed. The most curious blend of what is both amusing and pathetic, and verbal brilliance of remarkable quality.
For his part, Homer continued to be doubtful of Frame's ability to make her way as a writer in England:
Whenever I see a favourable review of a book by Janet Frame I am reminded that you were the first to recognize her gifts. Is she read in New Zealand? I doubt rather whether there is much sale for her books here. (39)
As if she agreed with this prognosis, Frame returned to New Zealand in 1964, and by 17 May that year Sargeson was writing, 'It has been so very nice to have Janet Frame round here again-I doubt whether she will return to England, but whatever, she never leaves off writing'. A couple of months later he was adding, 'A nice picture of Janet in TLS for June 4. Sweet girl, she's in and out here, but oh how I wish she would become readable--even if only 5 per cent more'. (40)
He admitted that his eighteen months of looking after her had permanently altered the way he looked at work by or about schizophrenics. When Homer edited for publication the diary of Richard Rumbold, a distant relation of Homer's who had suffered from schizophrenia for years before his suicide after the war, Sargeson confessed himself unable to like the result, A Message in Code: (41)
I have the very highest respect for your work, but God forgive me, as I said before he was your kinsman, I'm doubtful whether it was all work you should have done. I would agree it's very difficult to assess exactly--very complex. I expect one thing that bedevils me is my 18 months experience with Janet Frame when she lived here in my army hut I tell myself I know all that sort of thing through and through and I never want to encounter it again. (42)
Frame continued to write at a remarkable pace: 'Janet Frame, who simply goes on turning them out, has a new one coming from W.H. Allen soon', wrote Sargeson with audible envy on 24 July 1965, and before the end of the year The Adaptable Man had been published in both New York and London, (43) as Plomer noticed on 24 October:
I see a new novel by Janet Frame conspicuously reviewed here and there. Her view of life (if that is what the novel gives) is made to sound rather beyond the reviewers' understanding, but not beyond their respect. I should think she is more rewarding to read than some of the contemporary novelists of her own sex who are made much of in this country. I did see that one of them was said the other day to have revealed that she had 'nothing but sawdust up her sleeve'.
It is clear from the tone of this that Homer was still not a wholehearted admirer of Frame's work. Even Sargeson seems to have begun regarding her with the understandable pique of a master who sees his pupil surpass him. Her astounding productivity made his own constant straggles with writer's block even more painful to him. Frame had become too successful for either of them to feel quite comfortable about.
The faint note of envy grows louder in the late sixties as Frame's fame continued to grow, and she began to receive invitations to spend semesters on American campuses, to holiday in the Caribbean, or to write at the Yaddo Foundation in Saratoga Springs. In July 1969 a visiting French professor toured New Zealand praising Frame in his lectures, but he failed to call on Sargeson who, suffering increasingly from failing eyesight and now having to nurse his bed-ridden friend Harry, felt slighted and ignored. The fact that his own comic novel, Memoirs of a Peon, (44) had been rejected by publisher after publisher, so that at times he had despaired of ever seeing it in print, increased his sense of vulnerability.
A French professor from Toulouse has been travelling about NZ lecturing on Janet Frame, whom he describes as one of the world's greatest authors. Somebody gave him a telephone number that would get me, but I didn't hear, and infer I don't make the grade. I must write and tell Janet, who sends me most interesting letters on Americans and Americana--from Yaddo. (45)
Homer tried to cheer him up by reminding him of the part he had played in her success:
What a good thing about the French professor highly praising Janet Frame, and in NZ. It doesn't matter if he is exaggerating (if he is exaggerating)--the important thing is to declare there how much she matters. I have an idea that you were the first person or the main person to encourage her at an early stage. (46)
When he next wrote, Sargeson had recovered some of his usual cheerfulness, though it was only towards the end of his letter that his generosity of spirit showed itself clearly:
Your mention of Janet Frame reminds me I probably never told you my English friend, Elizabeth Dawson (47) (I think I made something of a figure of her in that seaside piece printed in the big vol. Landfall Country) a few years ago renamed to England & settled in a hamlet in Norfolk, where her neighbours have lately been George Barker & his wife (presumably a 2nd wife) & their 3 young children. (48) Elizabeth as a propagandist for NZ Lit. tries our work on Barker, but he won't have it on. His wife however falls for Janet Frame whom she considers (I think) 'by far the most powerful woman writer at present writing in English'. Of course she knows Janet, who stays with my friend (she is there now); & Janet is one of the rarest persons to know anywhere on earth. By her sheer rarity she gets about everywhere. Some Americans paid her jet air fare to Bermuda for Christmas last, and since she has written in the seclusion of the Yaddo Foundation at Saratoga Springs (as she wrote, 'listening to the brilliant conversation of Philip Roth' [for me I think she can have it: I haven't read Portnoy, but from picking it up in shops, I suspect R. to be a young man who supposes you can take short cuts in works of literary art]); besides the McDowell Colony (shades of Edward Arlington Robinson!) and now she's in Norfolk, Sheringham. And yet it's not much more than a decade since she was incarcerated in Mental Hospital (14 years!) with the brain operation impending! (49) A modern miracle story--as though some great person like Simone Weil having left us, Nature or Whatever had to raise somebody much the same as a replacement. (50)
It seems appropriate that that was to be his last word on Frame in the correspondence with Plomer, a rejoicing in what Plomer described to Sargeson as 'Janet Frame's resurrection and evolution and success (not in the narrow sense)', (51)
Sargeson was too generous and big a man not ultimately to feel pleasure, and a sense of pride, in the achievements of the woman whom he had helped, protected and nurtured at a time when few besides himself believed in the clarity of her vision, or in her gifts of language, or (above all) in her courage and ability to overcome the handicaps and obstacles she faced. The Plomer-Sargeson correspondence sheds much light on other aspects of Sargeson's character, but none more to the credit of this gifted, lonely man than his link with Frame.
(1) Frank Sargeson, More Than Enough (Wellington: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1975), pp.154-5.
(2) Janet Frame, An Angel At My Table (London: The Women's Press, 1984).
(3) An Angel At My Table, p.146.
(4) Frame describes him as speaking of women 'with distrust, at times hatred'. (Janet Frame, An Autobiography (London: Women's Press, 1990) p. 249). It is only fair to remark that Sargeson did not just disparage women; he disparaged almost everyone, in his humorously malicious way.
(5) Michael King, Frank Sargeson: A Life (Auckland: Viking, 1995); Michael King, Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame (London: Picador, 2000).
(6) William Charles Franlyn Plomer (1903-73), poet, novelist and gifted editor. My interest in his correspondence with Sargeson was awakened during the writing of my biography of Plomer, William Plomer: A Biography (London: OUP, 1988).
(7) Both sides of the correspondence are held in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington (MS Papers 432), and for permission to quote them I gratefully acknowledge the kindness of Sargeson's literary executor Mrs. Christine Cole Catley, Plomer's literary executor Sir Rupert Hart-Davis, and the Alexander Turnbull Library. Sargeson's varied and extensive correspondence is being edited for publication by Dr Sarah Shieff of Waikato University. Her edition, keenly awaited, should make a rich store of information available to scholars of New Zealand literature.
(8) This is the account of Sargeson's making contact with Plomer given by Dennis McEldowney in Frank Sargeson In His Time (Dunedin: John McIndoe, 1976) p. 35.
(9) King, Frank Sargeson: A Life, p. 181.
(10) Frank Sargeson, A Man and His Wife (Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1940).
(11) [?March 1941]. Harry Ransome Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, hereafter referred to as HRC.
(12) It was eventually to appear as 'Some Books from New Zealand', in Penguin New Writing No. 17, 1943.
(13) Unpublished letter, 28 June 1941: HRC.
(14) I Speak of Africa [short stories] (London: Hogarth Press, 1927); Notes for Poems [poetry] (London: Hogarth Press 1927); Paper Houses [short stories] London: Hogarth Press 1929); The Family Tree [poetry] (London: Hogarth Press 1929); Sado [a novel set in Japan] (London: Hogarth Press 1931); The Fivefold Screen [poetry] (London: Hogarth Press 1932); The Case is Altered [a novel] (London: Hogarth Press 1932) and Selected Poems (London: Hogarth Press 1940).
(15) Conversation with my Uncle and Other Sketches (Auckland: Unicorn Press, 1936) and A Man and His Wife (Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1940). Other work published by him during his correspondence with Plomer included That Summer and Other Stories (London: John Lehmann, 1946); When the Wind Blows (Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1945); I Saw in My Dream (London: John Lehmann, 1949); I For One (Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1954); Collected Stories 1935-63 (Auckland: Blackwood and Janet Paul, in conjunction with MacGibbon & Kee, London, 1964); Wrestling with the Angel, Two Plays: A Time for Sowing and The Cradle & The Egg (Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1964); Memoirs of a Peon (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1965); The Hangover (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1967) and Joy of the Worm (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1969).
(16) 26 January 1942.
(17) November 1945.
(18) Like Plomer, Angus Frank Johnstone Wilson (1913-1991) had South African links, his mother originating from there, though he was born in England. He worked in the British Library at this time. Like Plomer and Sargeson he was homosexual. Wilson had at this period published only two volumes, The Wrong Set (London: Secker & Warburg, 1949) and the book Plomer now sent Sargeson, Such Darling Dodos (London: Secker & Warburg, 1950). He went on to publish more than 30 books, several of them satirizing English society, and was knighted in 1980.
(19) 28 August 1950.
(20) Sargeson to Plomer, 30 November 1947.
(21) 20 March 1948.
(22) 'Mrs. Pincus' is one of Homer's short stories, 'the negro woman' is a reference to an incident in his first autobiography, Double Lives (Jonathan Cape, London, 1943).
(23) 1 December 1945.
(24) It would be published in 1965 as Memoirs of a Peon.
(25) 24 August 1946.
(26) 31 October 1946.
(27) 25 July 1949.
(28) 2 December 1949.
(29) 30 March 1969.
(30) They were Wrestling With the Angel and A Time for Sowing, published by the Caxton Press in 1964.
(31) Glover to Albion Wright, undated [?.April 1956], quoted in King, Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame, p. 139.
(32) 16 May 1956: quoted in Wrestling with the Angel, p. 140.
(33) Sargeson's correspondence mentions them and their work repeatedly, notably in letters of 26 January 1942, and 5 June 1956.
(34) Quoted in Wrestling with the Angel, p. 147. The Plomer ballad depicts a reader bound for the British Museum:
Down at heel and out at elbows Off he goes on gouty feet (Where he goes his foxy smell goes), Off towards Great Russell Street. On he shuffles, quietly mumbling Figures, facts and formulae-Bats are busy in the belfry, In the bonnet hums a bee.
(35) Janet Frame, Owls Do Cry (Christchurch: Pegasus Press, 1957).
(36) Quoted in Wrestling with the Angel, p. 177.
(37) By Lord Wolfenden headed the British Departmental Committee on Homosexual offences and Prostitution which in September 1957 had recommended that homosexual acts between consenting adults in private should no longer be criminal offences in Britain. The Report proved to be a turning point in the legalization of homosexuality in Western countries.
(38) Janet Frame, Faces in the Water (Christchurch, Pegasus Press, 1961).
(39) 15 April 1963.
(40) 23 June 1964.
(41) Richard Rumbold, A Message in Code (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1964).
(42) 30 July 1964.
(43) Janet Frame, The Adaptable Man (New York: Braziller, 1965 and London: W. H. Allen, 1965).
(44) Memoirs of a Peon (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1965).
(45) 8 July 1969.
(46) 12 July 1969.
(47) Elizabeth Pudsey Dawson, a wealthy English lesbian to whom Sargeson had introduced Frame, had lived since 1925 in New Zealand before returning to the United Kingdom in 1962.
(48) George Granville Barker (1913-1991), English poet, author of many volumes of verse and an autobiography, The True Confessions of George Barker (London: Parton Press, 1950, augmented 1965). His Collected Poems 1930-1965 were published in 1965. He was at this time living at Itteringham in Norfolk with his wife Elspeth, a novelist, and some of Barker's fifteen children.
(49) Frame narrowly escaped being obliged to have a prefrontal leucotomy.
(50) 24 August 1969.
(51) 1 December 1969.
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|Author:||Alexander, Peter F.|
|Publication:||JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2007|
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