Sunday, October 4, 2015

The myth of the 'male mentors'

Janet Frame enjoying a joke at the launch of Michael King's biography
From left: June Gordon (sister), Pamela Gordon (niece), Janet Frame, Ruth Dallas (friend), Joan Dutton (Ruth's niece)
Photograph: Reg Graham

While we are on the subject of sexist misrepresentations of Janet Frame, I thought I might mention that the common claim that Frame had mostly male 'supporters' and 'mentors' is another of the myths...

There are probably several reasons why the mostly male commentators who have propagated this claim over the years thought that Frame was some sort of dependent person who was incapable of making her way in the world without a strong male to guide her: one is their own male bias towards men as being more important or influential; the other is of course the privacy with which Frame guarded her closest relationships; the other is the report of some of the men themselves, who sometimes had higher opinions of their own influence than a clear-eyed and objective historical account would reveal.

And while we are confronting patronising Frame myths, another is the constant resort to the word 'mentor' in discussions of Frame's life, when the 'mentor' was actually her 'friend'. I have come to identify this over-use of 'mentor' at the expense of the more accurate 'friend' as a pretty accurate gauge of the degree of condescension a particular commentator has towards Frame, as though they believe she was incapable of actual friendship and only had guardians and sponsors and mentors. A careful reading of the King biography (reading the facts rather than the spin they are sometimes presented with) makes it clear that Frame had a very wide variety of friends and patrons and supporters and advocates of more than one gender.

Professor Patrick Evans, known to Frame's inner circle as spectacularly gifted in his ability to get so much about her life and her work wrong, refers to "the trail of male mentors which went through Frame’s strongly patriarchal life".

This is one-eyed and stubbornly ignorant. But it suits this type of commentator to portray Frame as incapable of anything other than a dependent relationship to strong male authority figures. (Evans has in recent years had to resort to fiction in order to sell his distortions of Frame, because that pesky nuisance the historical record contradicts him at every turn.)

I have been perplexed to find my own relationship with Janet distorted in the media and in public discourse. Increasingly I find myself referred to as having been her 'minder' in her last years. It's a demeaning insult both to her and to me, but it does fit with the derogatory attitude long held towards her, and it suits the agenda of those who feel they need to belittle me because they want to discredit me and silence my criticisms.

Just a handful of the women who were influential in Janet Frame's life and arguably more beneficial to her career that the usual suspects who are credited with her successes, are:

Librarian Dorothy White (later Ballantyne) of Dunedin, for instance was an early advocate and later friend at a crucial time in Frame's career, reviewing her work and giving Frame feedback and encouragement.

Patience Ross, Literary Agent - found by Frame herself in London and responsible for the early successes in publishing that made Frame an international name (the male New Zealand publishers and 'mentors' (Money and Sargeson) did not manage to find publishers outside New Zealand - it was Frame herself, working with her agent, who achieved this).

Jacquie Baxter, close friend from the mid 1960s.

Elizabeth (Peter) Dawson - the narrative about this close friendship was that because Dawson was actually Sargeson's friend first - he introduced them - that she was never Frame's own friend. Biographer Michael King even refers to Dawson as "Sargeson's friend" years after Frame and Dawson have developed their own strong bond

Publisher Stephanie Dowrick (former head of UK publishing house Women's Press) had an extremely beneficial effect on Frame's career in the 1980s and 1990s but would never have dreamed of calling herself a 'mentor' or taking the credit for the successes they achieved together.

Some of the other women who played important roles in Janet's life, and she in theirs - because her relationships were always rich and reciprocal - do appear in Michael King's biography but the friendship, support and love of the women is played down compared to the attributions given to certain male members of her circle (many of whom, as I mentioned earlier, were themselves convinced that Janet would be lost without them. That was not her opinion.)

Other female friends and colleagues were either not discovered by Michael King or he wasn't interested in recording their role in her life, or he noted their presence but underplayed their role in her life and career.

Several Frame scholars have noticed this tendency of several commentators to negate Frame's personal agency and subordinate Frame to her male associates. An example is Maria Wikse, who in her Materialisations of a Woman Writer: Investigating Janet Frame's Biographical Legend (Peter Lang, 2006), identifies many of the narrative strategies that achieve this skewed and sexist portrait of Frame. So does Gina Mercer in her work Janet Frame: Subversive Fictions (University of Queensland Press, 1995).

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