Monday, April 20, 2015

Janet Frame and the Popular Girls

"A selection of four or five girls, who were not, however, among the top scholars, maintained a concentration of power and privilege through sheer personality and so were less likely to suffer the taunts directed at the slower pupils. This group was the core of the class, with their activities at home and at school the source of most of the class interest and news; the rest of us moved on the outside in more or less distant concentric circles, looking toward the group whose power, in effect, surpassed even the glory of the scholars who, after all, were sometimes known contemptuously as ‘swots’.
   On the rim of the farthest circle from the group which was my usual place, I found myself with a tall, asthmatic girl, Shirley’s friend, who talked constantly of her brothers at university, quoting them incessantly, with their quotes being chiefly from Karl Marx. Karl Marx says this; Karl Marx says that . . . I sat with this girl for lunch while she explained communism and talked of Karl Marx while I looked with envy toward the place where the group sat, eagerly talking, shaking with laughter as they recounted what Mummy and Daddy had said and done during the weekend at the crib by the sea. The power and happiness flowing from them were almost visible as they talked. Their lives overshadowed the lives of the rest of the class; even Karl Marx was no match for them. Their families were happier, funnier, more exciting, than any others; and they all lived on the fabled South Hill. Even the teachers could not resist them, giving them regularly parts in class play-reading while we others watched and listened enviously. It was they who travelled on the Golden Road to Samarkand, who lived through A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice; Portia, Titania, Puck were among them while the rest of us had to be content with playing lone fairies or first, second or third voices offstage."

This passage from Janet Frame's autobiography has yielded at least one influential line for frequent use in Frame studies: "On the rim of the farthest circle". This phrase is  especially useful when Frame is characterised as an 'outsider' or as incapable of entering a 'normal life', and sometimes is even further used to characterise her work as being only concerned with losers and drifters and people who are somehow less than whole members of society*.

Iconoclast that I am, I would like to point out that the power group encompassing power and privilege consisted of only "four or five" girls, so the majority in fact consists of everyone outside the inner circle. The people located in the concentric circles presumably exhibit the 'normal' condition, not that such a thing exists, but my point here is that the inner circle is the anomaly. If one doesn't have access to that socio-economically determined position, then someone with an ambition to excel can strive to be exceptional in some other way, and one choice is to do this by standing as far off as possible. At the farthest point. Watching. Writers have to be watchers, and this does mean moving back to be able to observe.

To which one might retort: Which came first - the chicken or the egg? Do you watch because you are at the edge, or because you have nothing better to do? I've certainly heard and seen it argued that because Frame was a failure at life she turned to writing to console and heal herself. (My own opinion is that her talent and drive to write caused most of her early problems. If she had stayed obediently within her socially-determined place her punitive society might never have noticed her.)

But the chicken/egg one is a good question. Are our best writers often at a remove from 'mainstream' society because that is all they can do (an implied failure) or do they place themselves there in order to have a better view? And what about the popular girls? How do they feel about the rest of us? Do we ever hear from the popular girls themselves?

There's another proposition buried within the above passage that should not be overlooked: the popular girls "were not, however, among the top scholars". But their power "surpassed even the glory of the scholars who, after all, were sometimes known contemptuously as ‘swots’.

As with most of Frame's writing, there is a lot to mine in even a small excerpt. It would be easy to take this passage literally and not notice the implied social criticism, relayed at the expense of the author's own teenage self, gently mocking herself as the na├»ve young girl just learning the ways of the world, falling for hollow glories. Frame has often put it on record in her interviews that she was very careful in her autobiography to try to enter her own mind at the time, so that at each stage of her life you are hearing the language and perception that she remembers (or imagines) that she had at that time.

One of the things that we can learn from this passage is that New Zealand does have that strong seam of anti-intellectualism. 'Swots' are held in contempt, even if there is some 'glory' attached to their achievements.

This passage reminds me of Frame's short story 'Prizes' where many years later the narrator returns to her small town and contemplates these issues at length. What exactly are the 'prizes' we seek?

These thoughts are also relevant when I consider with amazement that anybody can seriously think that Frame's first novel Owls Do Cry can be characterised as: "gently exploring mental health, poverty and loneliness."** Anyone who thinks that Frame only ever wrote about these three things 'mental health, poverty and loneliness' (implied as an obsessive rehash of her own experience) has quite obviously read very little of Janet Frame's work. Even Owls Do Cry which does consider those themes, considers them along with an unprecedented and stringent analysis and criticism of New Zealand society.

*(Frame herself resisted this interpretation, her main reason being that she didn't consider any person less worthy than another.)
** (17-03-2015 - Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry announced as the 2015 Great Kiwi Classic book)

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