Birds of a Feather: the Letters of Charles Brasch and Janet Frame

At the Otago farmers market, on drizzly Saturday mornings, shoppers shuffle along in black puffer vests, some unknowingly passing over the small railway station plaque paying homage to Janet Frame. Seen by many as New Zealand’s greatest novelist and poet, Frame’s connections with Dunedin are evident in the various tributes paid to her throughout the city: from her inclusion in the Writers Walk, to the devotion of an entire university course to her novels.

Dear Charles Dear Janet, compiled by Pamela Gordon and Denis Harold, is a curious collection of letters between Frame and Brasch, providing a heartwarming insight into the relationship between these two figureheads of the twentieth-century New Zealand literary scene. The first encounter between the two creatives in the store Modern Books (now the popular The Dog with Two Tails) is described by Frame: “One day I saw Charles Brasch standing behind the counter selling books. Charles Brasch, the poet! I thought…” (3). From this point onward, the relationship between the two blossomed into a friendship involving numerous cups of tea and hot date scones (35).

Janet_Frame_memorial_plaque_in_Dunedin

The Janet Frame memorial plaque, as part of the Dunedin Writers Walk.

Throughout these letters we are reminded of Brasch and Frame’s close connection with the local, through their references to various Dunedin locations such as Modern Books, as well as contemporary New Zealand society in general. These references mirror their respective poetry and prose, which likewise contain recurring themes of kiwi life and culture. Simultaneously, both Brasch and Frame embraced international trends when creating their modernist work. European writers, such as Eliot, Auden and Graves, had a big impact on Brasch’s work, an influence that is clearly evident throughout his poetry. Similarly, Frame’s travels abroad, detailed in her letters to Brasch, introduced her to new ways of thinking about literature, philosophy, and modernism. Like many visual artists at the time, these two authors can be understood as utilising international modernist movements to both inform their own writing and aid their search for new ways of developing local literary voices.

One example of this international influence on local writing can be found in Frame’s The Edge of the Alphabet. While this book was written directly following Frame’s travels in England, it provides a strongly New Zealand perspective in its description of local subject matter. This title can be found within the University of Otago’s Special Collections, along with eleven other works of poetry, prose and sketches from Frame. Within these books are frequent handwritten dedications from Frame to Brasch, as well as annotations by Brasch and newspaper clippings of reviews of Frame’s work. 

Annotations

Pencil annotations by Brasch in his characteristic narrow hand writing, from within his copy of Frame’s A State of Siege. These notes detail which sections of the novel are written in third and first person perspective.

In The Pocket Mirror: Poems, Brasch recorded what appeared to be a review quotation from 14th August 1967, by a professor of English from Queen’s College, in praise of Frame’s work. In the second poem of this collection, Brasch annotated the line “I have settled now in my flat” (1) with “at Miss Ida White’s”, clarifying the specific flat which Frame is referring to. Other books such as A State of Siege and Daughter Buffalo contained neatly cut out reviews of Frame’s writing from newspapers at the time. Others, like the collection Reservoir and Other Stories, feature notes made by Brasch in the table of contents in relation to selected stories, pictured below. 

Contents

Brasch’s copy of Reservoir and Other Stories, table of contents.



These detailed notes and careful clippings further emphasise the close connection between these two marvellous writers, adding an extra strand to the complex and countless webs of influence which continue to shape modernist writing. 

Dedication

Dedication from Frame to Brasch in Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun, 1972.

References

Gordon, Pamela and Harold, Denis, eds. 2010. Dear Charles, Dear Janet: Frame & Brasch in Correspondence. Auckland: Holloway Press.

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