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A Woman on the Edge of Time

BOOK: A Woman on the Edge of Time
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Jeremy Gavron is the author of two non-fiction books and three novels, including
The Book of Israel
, winner of the Encore Award, and
An Acre of Barren Ground
. A former foreign correspondent in Africa and India, he lives now in London, and teaches at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.

Scribe Publications
18–20 Edward St, Brunswick, Victoria, Australia 3056
2 John St, Clerkenwell, London, WC1N 2ES, United Kingdom

First published by Scribe in 2015

Copyright © Jeremy Gavron 2015

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publishers of this book.

The advice provided in this book has been carefully considered and checked by the author and the publisher. It should not, however, be regarded as a substitute for competent medical advice. Therefore, all information in this book is provided without any warranty or guarantee on the part of the publisher or the author. Neither the author nor the publisher or their representatives shall bear any liability whatsoever for personal injury, property damage and financial losses.

The author and publishers are grateful to Arnold Wesker for granting permission to reproduce part of his
Six Days in January

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication data

Gavron, Jeremy, author.

A Woman on the Edge of Time: a son's search for his mother / Jeremy Gavron.

9781925106725 (AU edition)
9781925228090 (UK edition)
9781925113976 (e-book)

1. Gavron, Hannah. 2. Women sociologists–England–Biography. 3. Women–Social conditions–20th century.


A CIP record for this title is available from the British Library

For Rafi, Benji, Leah, Mosie, and Mima

Have I betrayed them all again by telling the story?
Or is it the other way round:
would I have betrayed them if I had not told it?
Amos Oz

These be the facts

of its Christmas Eve issue of 1965, among stories of Yuletide parties, the army distributing Christmas cakes, and a shopkeeper charged with receiving stolen long johns, the
Camden & St Pancras Chronicle
of north London ran a brief report on the inquest into the death of a young woman.

The facts, as the reporter laid them out, were straightforward. Ten days earlier, on the afternoon of Tuesday 14 December, Hannah Gavron had dropped the younger of her two sons at a Christmas party at his nursery school in Highgate and driven to a friend's flat in Primrose Hill. There she let herself in, sealed the kitchen door and windows, wrote a brief note, and turned on the gas oven.

A neighbour or perhaps a passing pedestrian must have smelled gas, for a North Thames Gas Board fitter with the unlikely name of Herbert Popjoy was sent to investigate. Obtaining no answer at the front door, he climbed a wall into the back garden, from ‘where he saw Mrs Gavron lying by a window'. Forcing his way in, he ‘dragged her into the hall and applied the “kiss of life” ', but despite his ‘heroic efforts' she could not be resuscitated.

The reasons for Mrs Gavron's actions, as reported in the article, were less clear. Her father, Mr Tosco Raphael Fyvel, told the court that his daughter and her husband ‘were “going through a difficult phase”, but that when he saw her the day before she died she was in an extremely good mood'.

The family's au pair girl, Miss Jean Yvonne Hawes, also testified that the ‘last time she saw Mrs Gavron', earlier on the day of her death, ‘she was in a very good mood'.

Only Mrs Anne Wicks, the friend in whose flat Mrs Gavron had died, suggested anything different. Mrs Gavron ‘had been depressed in the days before her death' and must have ‘put on a brave face for her father', she said, though she offered no explanation for Mrs Gavron's state of mind. Nor did she explain why Mrs Gavron had a key to her front door.

Other than a police constable, who found Mrs Gavron's note on a table, and a pathologist from University College Hospital, who stated that the death was due to carbon monoxide poisoning, there were no other witnesses.

Recording a verdict of suicide, the coroner noted that Mrs Gavron's ‘marriage had been going through a “sticky phase” ', but that this did not seem to account for why ‘an academically brilliant, happily employed young woman with a young family should take such a tragic step'. He had presided over more than 1,700 cases of suicide, he said, but never one ‘in which the intent to take one's own life had been clearer' and he had been ‘so confused about the reason'.

some degree of confusion. Suicide is the hardest human act to understand because it challenges the fundamental assumption by which we lead our lives — that life has meaning, value — but also because it leaves no one to explain. Murderers can at least be questioned, but a suicide is a murder in which the killer is also the victim: in which the reason, the motive, dies with the act.

In some cases, factors such as age, illness, financial troubles, loss, provide at least some explanation. Sylvia Plath, who gassed herself two years earlier in a flat one street away from where Hannah Gavron died, had suffered from mental illness since she was a girl and had tried to kill herself before — ‘one year in every ten', as she wrote in her poem ‘Lazy Lazarus'.

But Hannah's suicide, as the coroner suggested, was particularly confounding. She was twenty-nine, a few months younger than Plath, with two young children, as Plath had had, but she had no history of depression or suicidal impulses. Like Plath, she had been having marital troubles, but whereas Plath was alone with her children in a cold rented flat in a foreign city, Hannah was living in a brand-new house in Highgate, with an au pair girl, surrounded by friendly neighbours, her parents only a few minutes' drive away.

There were things the coroner did not know. When Hannah's father had spoken of her marriage going through a ‘difficult phase', what he had not said was that she had been having an affair with a colleague from the art college where she was teaching. The reason she had a key to Anne Wicks's flat was that she had been meeting this man there. In her last days, there had been some kind of argument.

But to those who knew Hannah, the idea that she would kill herself over an affair was hard to accept. ‘Inconceivable,' her father wrote in his diary at the time. ‘Oh my darling — why, why?' ‘Impossible to either grasp or understand,' her friend, Phyllis Willmott, wrote in hers. ‘The awful puzzle posed by her act.'

To friends and colleagues, Hannah was a golden girl, an exemplar of what a woman could achieve in the pre-women's-lib days of the mid-1960s. ‘There was nobody quite like Hannah,' her fellow sociologist Bernice Martin remembers. ‘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.'

She wasn't perhaps conventionally beautiful — her face was too broad, her black hair too bristly, her mouth too big — but with her expressive almond eyes and full lips, which would spread at the slightest provocation into the broadest of smiles, and the life force burning brightly in her, she had always been highly attractive to men. One of the stories told about her was how as a schoolgirl at her progressive boarding school she had had an affair with the headmaster.

Intelligent and poised, she had from a young age been successful in almost everything she did. At eight, another story went, she announced she was going to win a BBC children's poetry competition, and promptly did so. At twelve, she was a champion show-jumper in gymkhanas around southern England. She left school at sixteen to train to be an actress at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where, so the story went, she played in Shakespeare opposite Albert Finney and Peter O'Toole. When she gave up acting and went to London University, she got a first in sociology, and embarked on a PhD, at the same time as having two sons.

While still working on her doctorate, she began reviewing books for
The Economist
New Society
. She also started to appear as a pundit on the radio and television. In the last two years of her life, while finishing her thesis and waiting for it to be approved, she was teaching at Hornsey College of Art, one of the epicentres of the heady new world of the Swinging Sixties, which she embraced in her appearance and manner.

‘She was a blast of sea air through the place,' David Page, a colleague at Hornsey, remembers. ‘I can still see her striding up the corridor: knee-length boots, dark tights and suede mini-skirt, with a Mary Quant hair-do. She would have a cheroot in one hand, a wonderful wide grin, and would quite likely be cursing someone or something. She was the first woman I had met who looked at men the way men traditionally looked at women. She would see a male student passing and say, “I really fancy that one.” '

At the same time, she was a serious sociologist, with a focus on the situation of modern women. In her last months, she had been adapting her doctoral thesis, a study of the conflicts in the lives of young mothers in Kentish Town, into a book.
The Captive Wife
, as she titled it, would prove to be an early statement of the women's movement that was to rise up in the years to follow, and caused something of an uproar when it was published a few months after her death.

But captive wives, unhappy young mothers in north London, women who felt so lonely and desperate that they ‘could scream', as she quoted one of her interviewees as saying, were what Hannah wrote about — not what she, with her smart modern house in Highgate, her au pair girl, her job, her book, her knee-length boots, and Mary Quant hair-do, was herself.

my mother. I am the son she took to nursery school that afternoon in 1965. I was four years old.

This sense of my mother as two different people — the attractive, brilliant, free-spirited Hannah who lived her life to the full, and the Hannah who mysteriously decided she couldn't go on living at all — was what I grew up with.

I wasn't told this any of this directly. After her death, my father decided that it was better if we didn't talk about her. I don't remember much about those first couple of years after her death, but once my father had remarried and our new family began to expand, we moved house; and though I lived in our new home until I left at eighteen, I don't remember Hannah ever being mentioned under its roof. Nor were there any photographs of her on display, or any other sign of her, except for a few copies of
The Captive Wife
, up on a high shelf, where other parents might have kept books by Henry Miller or Anaïs Nin.

My grandparents, Hannah's parents, did have a few pictures of her on the wall in their house in Primrose Hill (barely a hundred yards from where she died, though it wasn't until much later that I learned this). My grandmother was also the one person who talked to me about her — or at least repeated the same handful of stories about her youthful mischiefs and adventures. How she locked the housekeeper in the chicken shed until she promised to stop smacking her son. How she dropped a penny on the bus so she could bend down and look up a Scotsman's kilt to see ‘the thing itself'. How she wanted to marry my father at seventeen, but my grandparents made her wait until she was eighteen.

By then my own memories of her had long vanished. It was partly the age I was when she died — we don't start to prioritise autobiographical memory until we are about five. But I have a clear memory of the morning after her death, my father sitting my brother and me down on the end of his bed to tell us. I remember the knowledge of her absence, too. When I grew up and learned about phantom limbs, how an amputated arm or leg can still produce sensation, I understood how this must feel. But when I try to look back to her I see only blackness.

My father spoke to me about her only once in the years I lived at home. It was the summer after my sixteenth birthday. We were in his car — I don't remember where we were going, and perhaps we were driving for the purpose of this conversation, for sitting side by side as we were he did not have to look at me. After her death he had told my brother and me that she had died of a heart attack, but now he told me a different story. He had never stopped loving her, he said, but she had fallen for a colleague who turned out to be homosexual, and when this man rejected her she felt she had messed things up and killed herself.

I remember my eyes blurring, and wondering if I wanted my father to see that I was crying. Beyond that, I didn't know what to think or feel. I don't remember asking any questions or wondering if there might be more to the story than he had told me.

My interest in her must have been stirred, for as well as the copies of her book, which I already knew about, I found a couple of other things. One was a bag of rosettes and cups I realised must have been hers from her showjumping. I polished up a couple of the larger cups and put them on a shelf in my bedroom.

The other was a box of old photographs. I have it beside me now, and there are pictures in it of Hannah with me, though the one I chose to take was a portrait of her as a teenager — a headshot, I now realise, from her time at acting school. She would have been seventeen or possibly eighteen, not much older than I was, but with her carefully coiffed hair, a silk scarf knotted around her neck, her eyes gazing away from the camera, she seemed to me impossibly sophisticated and glamorous. Written in a corner in looping letters (the first of her handwriting I had ever seen) were the words, ‘Bewitched, bothered and bewildered, but always yours', which I guessed must have been for my father, but I fantasised were for me, and for a while I was a little in love with the girl in that photograph.

I put her up in my room alongside the cups. I hadn't talked to anyone about what my father had told me, and perhaps I hoped that he or my brother or my stepmother might comment on these artefacts, that this might lead to more talk about Hannah, though as far as I remember no one said anything.

Soon, anyway, I was leaving home to go to university, and I spent the rest of my twenties working as a journalist in Africa and Asia, too wrapped up in my own present to worry much about the past. It wasn't until I came back to London at the age of twenty-nine — the age she was when she died — that my thoughts turned to her again and I learned more about her and her death.

BOOK: A Woman on the Edge of Time
11.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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