A Woman on the Edge of Time

AWomenOnTheEdgeIn 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.






26 thoughts on “A Woman on the Edge of Time

  1. So keen to read this, and your review is wonderful: sympathetic and astute. Poor Hannah Gavron. What an amazing human she must have been. This too is going straight onto my list of must-finds.

    • That poor woman – it does give you a shock to read it and really see what the ideology of the times were, how impossibly restrictive for women. I would love to know what you make of this – please do tell me if/when you can get hold of a copy of it.

      • I certainly will. It’s so shocking to realize that this was the norm within living memory; it explains a lot about my grandparents (both the more traditional and less traditional sets!)

  2. In some ways, Hannah’s story reminds me a little of Lorna Sage’s autobiography, Bad Blood. It must have been very difficult for Gavron to deal with some of the things he found out about his mother.

    • Oh I loved Lorna Sage’s book too. That was another breathtaking memoir. I thought how brave Gavron must have been, and at times he does write about his feelings during the process. But mostly all you hear is his profound sympathy for his mother, which is very moving.

  3. This sounds sad and fascinating at the same time. There really seems to have been a malaise in that decade, where women were struggling to find new ways of living and often losing the fight. Although there are still issues to fight, I think we take a lot of the changes that have taken place for granted.

    • I think you’re absolutely right. When you read something actually written in that period, it’s scarcely credible how much women’s lives have changed. Though thank goodness they have!

      • There’s a wartime propaganda film called ‘Millions Like Us’ which follows a group of ordinary women (among them a very young Joan Greenwood) as they take on jobs previously considered men’s work (driving and maintaining heavy lorries, working on anti-aircraft guns during air raids). There’s a particular scene in which some of them have tea with their friend’s fiance’s mother – a sweet-faced old lady who turns out to have been an intrepid ambulance driver during the First World War – who tells them how much better things are going to be for women after all they’ve shown they are capable of during the war.

        I find this a particularly poignant scene with the knowledge of the decade that came after – there’s another propaganda short, made just as the war was ending, showing women in military uniform ironing while a hearty male voiceover talks about how these girls are used to driving tanks etc and now they’re learning all the tasks needed to welcome their husbands home which are even more important.

        You can quite see that for some women it must have been a huge relief, at least initially at any rate, to get to be feminine again – witness the huge success of Dior’ s New Look – but the ‘little woman in the home’ propaganda during the 1950s was so relentless, it does rather make you wonder about the numbers of women whose resistance to the model was generating all this.

        I agree we still have a long way to go though – I was rather taken aback by the leaflet for our new washing machine, bought only a few months ago, which continually extolled its usefulness to ‘busy mums’ – with not a single picture featuring an adult male.

  4. This reminds me of my mother, who had me because when she got to the Univ. of Wisconsin in January 1960 to claim the fellowship she had been awarded in fall 1959, the department head refused to give it to her because she had gotten married in December 1959 and her last name had changed. “You won’t finish the degree,” he told her, “you’ll just get pregnant.” What choice did she have? She finally finished her PhD when I was in high school.
    So I have to read this book. But it will make me sad, so I may have to wait for spring.

    • Oh Jeanne, your poor mother! That sort of thing is SO infuriating, isn’t it? And women then had absolutely no recourse, no method of complaint; the doors shut and that was that. Good for your mother that she did finish her PhD. That makes it even more of an accomplishment. I found Gavron’s sympathy for his mother and the way he told her story to be, oh not soothing, but not upsetting either. Still, the spring is soon enough. I certainly avoid all sorts of books midwinter.

  5. Thanks for introducing me to this interesting book, Litlove. The facts you presented here led me to google some more and discovered that Jeremy Gavron is the step-brother of Sarah Gavron, director of the film Suffragette. I can see other connections too, like Syvia Plath as you mentioned, the same method and proximity of locations; also makes me think of the film The Hours.

    • When I saw Sarah Gavron’s name on your blog, I did wonder… isn’t that an amazing coincidence? I have The Hours to read, and must do so in 2016. Then I will read your review of the film again. It is so fascinating to compare adaptation to original.

  6. A powerful and moving review. So many questions after a suicide which on the surface seems inexplicable.

    Her son sounds wonderful.

    • I would love to know what you make of it. I really, really need to go through my blogroll and get it sorted next year so that I have all the new (to me) blogs on it I want to follow!

  7. An excellent review; the book sounds amazing. It must have taken a lot of courage to research and write. So hard not to think what a dreadful waste, but it does seem as if she really ate up life while she could, good for her.

    Sobering to think how lucky we are in comparison, how much has changed in just 50 years.

    • I couldn’t agree more. It’s scarcely two generations, and yet so much has changed in that time, and thank goodness it has. It does seem as if the suicide was terribly impetuous in nature, and, like Plath, she might have survived had the friend come back to her flat at the time she’d intended. But this book DOES go some way towards reparation, I felt. Once I’d read it, Gavron’s mother clearly hadn’t lived in vain, and had – just as you say – hoovered up experience while she had the chance.

  8. How sad 😦 I am glad her son dug her story out but as you say, so sad that the opportunity to see him grow up, and that whole relationship, was missed. I am going to go and buy this now.

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