In 1965, shortly before Christmas, a young, ambitious mother of two children on the brink of publishing her first book of sociology let herself into a friend’s house in Primrose Hill, London, turned on the oven and gassed herself. It was an act with uncanny echoes of Sylvia Plath’s demise, which had taken place just two years earlier and two streets away. Her family was dumbfounded; on the face of it, Hannah had everything she could wish for – a loving husband in a successful career, two young boys, a promising academic career, good looks, money, friends. Only the title of her book, The Captive Wife, gave a possible hint at a darker truth, and only the friend whose house she had used knew that she ‘had been depressed in the days before her death.’ But life goes on and the devastated family kicked over Hannah’s traces, her suicide becoming the great ‘unsaid’. Until, that is, her younger son, Jeremy Gavron, decided he had to find out the real motivations for his mother’s act. A Woman on the Edge of Time is the story he uncovered and it is absolutely hypnotic.
How you tell a story – what gets left out, what gets distorted, where the emphasis is placed – is the theme that runs quietly through this memoir. The stories Jeremy Gavron had been told of his mother portrayed a ‘golden girl’. A friend described how ‘She was young, attractive, confident, bright, able; she brought an extra jolt to life. To succeed in those days women had to give up something – children, work, femininity – whereas Hannah wanted and appeared able to have everything.’ In family stories she featured as a force of nature: at eight she won a poetry contest, at twelve she was a champion show-jumper, at sixteen she left her progressive boarding school to become an actress at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and then after her early marriage at eighteen, she returned to her studies, researching a Ph.D while bringing up her sons. She was working as a professional reviewer, teaching at a fashionable London college and adapting her doctoral thesis into her first book in the final months of her life. What a strange story Hannah’s life became with her final tragic act; what an outrageous and inexplicable ending to an otherwise glittering Bildungsroman.
Jeremy Gavron began digging. He found his grandfather’s diaries; he questioned family and friends, everyone he could reach who had known his mother; he read her book and the letters she sent to friends. And gradually he pieced together a very different tale. His Hannah is indeed a courageous and headstrong young woman, wild at times, acting as if ‘the normal codes of behaviour weren’t for her’. She had a precocious and wilful sexuality that flourished in an affair she had with the headmaster of her boarding school. An affair that Gavron calculates, with a sickened heart, that she must have begun at 14. There was an almost desperate urge to get married, as if it was a troubling void that had to be filled. Hannah wrote to a friend ‘One of the awful things Frensham [their boarding school] has left us with is the feeling that if one is not in love with anyone in particular, life is very dreary.’ Acting never took off. The marriage soured and Hannah fell in love with someone else, someone she was working with, a man who unfortunately turned out to be homosexual though by this point she seems determined to act like that didn’t matter.
The most disturbing part of Hannah’s history surrounds her academic career in sociology. Hannah had researched and written her book about the stultification of domestic life, interviewing a number of women with young children and drawing on her own experience. Here was a woman with a lot of spirit and verve, way too much for the rigid constraints of the 50s and early 60s, and she was a pioneer before her time, without the sisterhood that feminism would offer working women later in the decade. Then she became aware that her applications for university positions were being stymied by the men she had to rely on for references out of pure misogyny. When Gavron takes the evidence he has gathered to a neighbour who is a psychologist and psychoanalyst, she points out that “The fact that Hannah was a strong personality wouldn’t necessarily have helped, she says; ‘the whole of that terrific force gets turned against herself.’”
Once I began this book, I absolutely could not put it down. It is beautifully written, with a limpid, open simplicity that is still full of nuance. Jeremy Gavron structures his researches terrifically well, so that even though I had the outlines of his mother’s life given to me in the earliest pages, I was full of curiosity to find out the devilish details of the other side and to see how he would interpret the results. And even when he believes he understands his mother’s act and can create a narrative of sorts, Gavron is still finding out new revelations that make him wonder whether he has the story right. It’s a brilliant investigation into the unsaid that forms a part of every family (if not quite so dramatically as in Gavron’s case) and into the slipperiness of storytelling. We need those stories if we are to have any chance of understanding experience, but stories seep over gaps and seal up perspectives that might need to be wrenched open again. It is also a valuable piece of social history in the way it creates shocking insight into the reality of life for women in the 1950s, when you really did need a man by your side if you were to have any self-esteem at all. And finally, I felt it was a moving tribute to a mother who had been loved without being known, and who was now known in all her flaws and failures, all the things she could not deal with and which led to her suicide, and who was loved even more now for being understood. The real tragedy of Hannah Gavron’s life is that she did not live to experience the sweet reparation her son could have given her.
Straight onto my best books of the year list.