Janet Frame was born in 1924 in Dunedin, New Zealand, one of five children, and grew up in Oamaru on the eastern coast of the South Island. Her father was a railway engineer and the Frames were very badly off, but there was a love of language and literature instilled into the whole family, and continuing education was encouraged.
Frame attended Waitaki Girls' High School, and University of Otago Teachers Training College in Dunedin, but she left teaching in 1945 to look after four elderly women in a boarding house.
Two of her sisters died by drowning early in Janet's life. These were separate accidents, ten years apart, the first in 1937 and 1947. In addition her brother was an epileptic, and his life was deeply affected by the condition. The trauma of these events is often reflected in Frame's writing.
In 1947 she became a patient at Seacliff Mental Hospital, where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia – in fact, she had had a nervous breakdown. She spent seven years in various psychiatric hospitals, where she was subjected to more than 200 electric shock treatments and and was waiting for a leuchotomy operation when her first book, a collection of short stories called The Lagoon, was published in 1951 and won the Hubert Church Memorial Award.
On leaving institutional life, she lived for a year in an old army hut in the garden of writer, Frank Sargeson's Takapuna property. In 1956 she left New Zealand to travel to Ibiza, Andorra and England living on a literary grant. Her first novel Owls do Cry was published in 1957. It was in London at the Maudsley Clinic, that Frame was told by a panel of psychiatrists that she had never, in fact, been schizophrenic. The seven years she was away were very prolific ones for Janet.
In 1963, Frame's father died, and she returned to New Zealand at the end of that year. She was awarded the Scholarship in Letters in 1964, and the Burns Fellowship at Otago University in 1965 – both providing her with an income while she wrote.
Over the course of several years she travelled repeatedly to the USA staying for extended periods. She took up several fellowships at the Yaddo Foundation, (a writers' colony in Saratoga Springs, New York) in 1967, 1969 and 1971 and one at the McDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire in 1969.
The Pocket Mirror, a collection of poetry (the only such collection to be published) came out in 1967 and won the Literary Fund Award for Achievement in 1969, the same year that her only children's book Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun was published.
In 1974 she was awarded the Winn-Manson Menton Fellowship (Later known as the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship) and spent a year in Menton in France before returning to New Zealand. Frame was awarded the inaugural Turnovsky Prize for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts in 1984 and the Sargeson Fellowship at the University of Auckland in 1987. She also received the C.B.E in 1983.
Frame's three-volume autobiography was adapted into a film in 1990, under the collective title An Angel at My Table. It was directed by Jane Campion and won seven prizes at the Venice International Film Festival, as well as the Special Jury Prize, and The Four Season's International Critics' Award at the Toronto Festival of Festivals.
As well as several collections of essays, four full-length studies of Frame have been published.
- The Lagoon, 1951
- Owls Do Cry, 1957
- Faces In The Water, 1961
- The Edge Of The Alphabet, 1962
- Scented Gardens For The Blind, 1963
- The Reservoir, 1963
- Snowman, Snowman, 1963
- The Adaptable Man, 1965
- A State Of Siege, 1966
- The Pocket Mirror, 1967
- The Rainbirds, 1968 (Reissued As Yellow Flowers In The Antipodean Room)
- Mona Minim And The Smell Of The Sun, 1969
- Intensive Care, 1970
- Daughter Buffalo, 1972
- Living In The Maniototo, 1981
- To The Is-Land, 1982
- An Angel At My Table, 1984
- You Are Now Entering The Human Heart, 1984
- The Envoy From Mirror City, 1985
- The Carpathians, 1988