An Angel at my Table by Janet Frame, dramatized by Anita Sullivan

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Classic Serial on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4, 13-20 January 2013
Told as a first-person narrative by the mature Janet (Lorraine Ashbourne), An Angel at my Table dramatized the life of a young girl born of a Scottish immigrant family growing up in New Zealand during the 1930s. To say that her family were plagued by misfortune seems an understatement: her elder sister Myrtle (Isobel Stewart) is drowned, while Bruddie, her brother (Peter McKenzie/ William Alexander) is an epileptic.  Her father (Denis Lill) seems only interested in himself and his presumed social status, while mother (Barbara Ewing), although well-meaning, often smothers her children with too much attention.
School proves not much better: as she moves up the educational ladder, young Janet becomes more and more conscious of her status as a rural outsider with filthy teeth, an endlessly washed handmade tunic and no proper sanitary towels.  She tries her best to fit in, but most of the other girls - especially at the academically high-powered institutions she attends - don't want to know her.
The principal way she deals with her sense of social inadequacy is through writing - both poetry and fiction.  Janet falls in love with the writers of the past, who inspire her to publish work of her own.  At last, it seems, she can find a niche in life while studying to be a teacher.
But eventually fate deals her one last adverse throw of the dice: in the rigidly defined society she inhabits, where women are expected either to stay at home or train in one of the 'respectable' professions (such as teaching), the writer is perceived as somehow threatening.  Janet's case is rendered worse by the fact that she turns against her mother, once she starts attending training college, as she understands just how unsophisticated her upbringing has actually been.  The only way to deal with such 'deviants' is to incarcerate them out of harm's way - preferably in a mental institution.
Recounted in unemotional tones by the mature Janet, An Angel at My Table is not only a fascinating recreation of a vanished world - when New Zealand was still under British colonial rule - but also makes some trenchant points about the ways in which femininity was constructed at that time.  Janet does not fit the grooves prescribed for her by her society, and ends up being marginalized.  Nonetheless she has lived to tell the tale, even though she cannot understand why others should consider her mad.  The director was Karen Rose.