A group of Janet Frame fans are using novel ways raise money to transform the writer’s childhood home in Oamaru into a visitors centre. Claire Mabey spoke to Kate Camp from the Janet Frame Eden Street Trust about their efforts and vision.
Claire Mabey: Before we get to the quince jelly, how did the Trust acquire Janet Frame’s childhood home at 56 Eden St, Oamaru?
Kate Camp: The house was purchased in 2002 by admirers of Frame’s writing. A charitable trust was then formed to “reframe” the house so it could be opened to the public and used as a focal point for literary events. Janet Frame and her sister June provided input into restoring the house along with volunteers and skilled local tradespeople. The house was transferred to the trust’s ownership in 2004 and has been open six months of the year as a house museum since then.
Whose idea was it to auction off a jar of quince jelly (made from quinces grown at 56 Eden St) to raise funds to “transform the humble garage of Janet Frame’s childhood home into an iconic visitor centre”?
The brilliant Gordon Harcourt came up with this scheme! He has donated his time to do publicity for the campaign and this was one of his brainwaves.
How much are you trying to raise overall, for the house and the garage?
We are looking to raise $600,000 total to transform the garage. The crowdfunding is the first phase, then we will move to applying for grants.
How will the visitor centre be “iconic”? Can you give us the vision?
The design from New Heritage with an open book as the roof will be instantly recognisable. In a street with a quiet character, it will stand out as something extraordinary – a bit like Frame herself. Having a dedicated visitor centre will enable all the storytelling and practical aspects to happen there, freeing up the house to stand as a time capsule of the 30s and 40s.
Who made the quince jelly?
Alison Albiston, former Janet Frame Eden Street Trust trustee, heritage house and garden guru, loyal volunteer and amazing cook.
When does 56 Eden St Oamaru appear in Frame’s writing? Or does it?
Frame writes extensively about the house in her autobiography – from the bed she shared with her sisters to the flash indoor toilet. “We were overjoyed at the house and the land, and the hill of pine plantations at the back. We were to be real town dwellers, with electric lights and a pull the chain lavatory instead of a dumpy box.” (from To The Is-land.)
Why is Frame “one of our best writers”? What made her work so special?
The Washington Post describes her work as blending “themes of fractured identity, morbidity and caustic appraisals of modern society.” For me it is her mix of lyricism and social satire which is so unusual, and so distinctive.
I don’t think there’s any question that her extraordinary life story, captured in her autobiography, contributes to how she is venerated. Her escape from the lobotomy – rescued by her own genius – is just such a staggering fact. But of course her life story is only important because of her literary output.
There is a Frame moment coming up in 2024 – can you tell us about that? Any plans?
We do have plans to celebrate the centenary [100 years since Frame’s birth] but at the moment the fundraiser is our main focus. Events are fantastic but for us, having a place where her legacy can be cherished for the long term is critical.
A note on the Trade Me listing for the Quince Jelly says: “Please note that Jane Campion and Helen Clark’s are e-signatures” – why is that?
Just logistics – couldn’t get the famous women and the quince jelly in the same country at the same time! But we are so grateful for their support.
What has visitation to the house been like so far? What are visitors looking to experience?
In recent years around 500 people visit each year. Some visitors are wanting to learn about Frame and understand her significance and her life, some have been deeply impacted by Frame’s writing and are on a pilgrimage of sorts to honour her, some knew Frame or other family members – all sorts of reasons people visit but often it is people seeking out the house because Frame’s life and work mean something very important to them.
Are Frame’s works still well-read? Do you think this project will reignite interest in the books?
Frame is still well-read and we hope this project, and the centenary, will spark more interest in her books. It’s more than 30 years since An Angel At My Table brought Frame to global attention in film form. We are probably due another Janet Frame renaissance!
Where would you encourage people to start if they’ve never read Frame before?
I always recommend Owls Do Cry. When I recommend it to people I always say the first couple of pages are a bit weird, but don’t let that put you off! Such a powerful novel of mental anguish, strength and just sheer bloody genius.
What are your personal favourite Frame books?
To the Is-land. Her childhood and youth was marked by tragedy but it’s the ordinary bits that I find so powerful. I still think often about the velvet lining of her grandfather’s glasses case. And how she heard her grandmother lived in the “deep south” and imagined her on an antebellum plantation.
You have until 7.30pm on 18 July to bid on the jar of quince jelly, signed by Shayne Carter (real ink sig), Helen Clark and Jane Campion (e-sigs) on Trade Me. You can read about, and support, the fundraiser on Givealittle. And you can learn about the Janet Frame House and when to visit at jfetrust.org.nz.