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Review: Jay to Bee: Janet Frame’s letters to William Theophilus Brown

 j2bJay to Bee: Janet Frame’s Letters to William Theophilus Brown, edited by Denis Harold for the Janet Frame Trust; published in May 2016 by Counterpoint Press, Berkeley, California.

ISBN: 9781619027282

This collection of letters from Janet Frame to Bill Brown spans the period between November 1969 and January 1971, the first fifteen months of their long friendship, and is a testimony to Bill Brown’s assertion in an interview that ‘Oh, she had a wicked wit.  She was a lot of fun’.

The two friends met in 1969 at MacDowell artists’ colony in New Hampshire, where Janet Frame spent some months working among other writers and artists  ̶  like-minded people  ̶  and where she felt entirely at home.  Bill Brown was best known as a painter, living in California with his partner Paul Wonner, also a painter, and their cat Ned. Bill was in addition a gifted pianist, who entranced Janet at MacDowell with his after-dinner playing of Beethoven and Schubert sonatas. Janet later spent time in California with Bill and Paul, and was tickled by the American habit of calling people by their initials: hence the book’s title, Jay to Bee.

This volume of letters from Counterpoint Press is a more generously sized format than previous publications from the Janet Frame Trust, allowing for the inclusion of Janet’s doodles, bits of collage and other visuals, giving a fair idea of the formatting of the original letters on the page.  There are also a few letters from Bill Brown included towards the end, plus a helpful glossary of names, nicknames, private word-coinings and so on. The letters cover the usual domestic trivia, travel plans, discussions of artists and writers, music and literature, people they knew, and Janet’s feelings about her experiences at this time; plus all the glorious, joke-sharing silliness of a close and trusting friendship, and a taste of Janet’s scurrilous verses and ribald limericks.

The two friends later exchanged tapes as well as letters: Bill’s piano-playing and Janet’s recordings of poems. Their loving friendship really was a ‘marriage of true minds’, which endured until Janet died in 2004, when her niece, Pamela Gordon, telephoned Bill to report Janet’s imminent death and her final message for him: ‘I still have my sense of humour, and I’ll see you in the next world’.

Jay to Bee is a terrific addition to the published Janet Frame oeuvre. Grateful thanks are due to both the Janet Frame Trust for its work in selecting and editing this material, previously unavailable to the public; and to the American publishers, Counterpoint Press, for producing such a handsome volume. It does, of course, leave us hoping for more!

Patricia Neville is a former English teacher and teacher of the deaf who took an MA in Literature with the Open University as a retirement project, writing her dissertation on Janet Frame. She is now pursuing her interest in Janet Frame further by researching a doctoral thesis, again with the Open University.

November 2016