The limits of literary licence

03:48, Aug 27 2013
Sophie Hamilton
'RELUCTANT PUBLIC FIGURE':Sophie Hamilton plays Janet Frame in Gifted, which was staged last weekend as part of the Christchurch Arts Festival.

Marilyn Monroe has been fictionalised several times. Notorious football manager Brian Clough was resurrected in The Damned Utd, both book and film. Virginia Woolf starred in The Hours. Lee Harvey Oswald was re-imagined by Don DeLillo in Libra.

Those people were both famous and dead. Ethically, it's tougher to justify using a living person's raw experience.

British writer A S Byatt said she knew of "at least one suicide and one attempted suicide caused by people having been put into novels". Her advice: Don't ever tell a writer anything.

She saw the problem as part of a general loss of privacy in the internet age, when "everyone's idea of anyone else, kind or cruel, just or unjust, is available on the web, to be believed, or mocked".

But famous people? That's different. The makers of The Damned Utd defended themselves with the view that Clough "was a public figure all his life and no-one exploited the media more". Surely the public is allowed to reinterpret the legend.

In a roundabout way, that brings us to Janet Frame. To be specific, Gifted.

The novel Gifted by Canterbury University professor and Frame aficionado Patrick Evans appeared in 2010. It described an important period in Frame's life in which she worked in an army hut on writer Frank Sargeson's property in Auckland, just before the publication of Owls Do Cry.

Frame was a reluctant public figure but Gifted was far from the first telling of the story. Frame and Sargeson both wrote about it in their memoirs. Jane Campion dramatised it in her acclaimed film of Frame's life, An Angel at My Table. Michael King retold it again as historical fact in his biographies of Frame and Sargeson.

And there had already been a fictional treatment. In the C K Stead novel All Visitors Ashore, Frame was Cecilia Skyways, Sargeson was Melior Farbro and Stead appeared as Curl Skidmore.

Where Gifted differed was in the use of actual names. For those familiar with Frame and Sargeson, it was an ingenious revisiting of a period of literary history that has taken on the quality of legend. Bill Manhire called it "a brilliant piece of ventriloquism".

It fitted a new tradition of writers imagining other writers and their work processes. Besides Virginia Woolf, there have been two recent novels about Henry James and at least one about Charles Dickens.

The danger is that fiction might not measure up to fact. A well-known New Zealand writer once told me, in relation to Stead's novels Mansfield and My Name is Judas, that "if you're going to put words into the mouths of Katherine Mansfield and Jesus, they have to be better than the ones we already have".

Gifted passed the aesthetic test. But it became a problem for Frame's literary executor, Pamela Gordon, who is also Frame's niece. On her blog, she calls Gifted a "fictional distortion". She rebuts its factual errors. For example: "The novel suggests Frame has only one good friend and maliciously suggests that her distant family do not understand at all." In fact, Gordon writes, "[Frame] had close supportive friends and family."

Another blog entry was prompted by a further provocation from Patrick Evans. He has adapted his book for the stage. Gifted is now a play, performed at this year's Christchurch Arts Festival.

Gordon objected to a quote in the play's marketing. This is something Frame was never recorded to have said: "Don't try to change me, I won't be changed."

In a promotional video, Evans said that "quite a lot of what I have written is probable and plausible". Gordon disputed that. Evans also said, "People will be finding [Frame] meaningful in years to come." Gordon did not dispute that.

It is not just Evans who has been accused of misrepresenting Frame. Gordon cites a book about Jane Campion by Otago University professor Alistair Fox that shows how Campion made Frame's childhood look worse than it was. Fox argues that Campion made Frame a vehicle for her own themes.

But it gets complicated as Frame did this kind of fictionalising herself. Michael King's biography describes a short story from the early 1960s called The Triumph of Poetry, about "a promising poet who is gradually seduced by academic advancement and conformist living".

It was thought that the poet was based on Stead. An angry Sargeson intervened and told Stead the bad news about Frame's "recognisable portraits". Frame apologised but the Steads were left "distressed and puzzled".

Stead felt the story was like "a curse" from Frame. King and others speculated that All Visitors Ashore, written some 20 years later, was a stored-up act of revenge by Stead. Stead's answer was that they were not "allusions to her" but to a character who resembles her.

But regardless of the rights or wrongs of Evans' approach in Gifted, there is one sad fact everyone overlooks. No-one is talking about the real subject of the book and the play, the writer they used to call the father of New Zealand literature: Frank Sargeson.

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