Hannah Gavron committed suicide in 1965, aged 29. A London sociologist, she left behind a successful academic career, a devoted husband and two small children. Her death remained an unspoken absence in her family’s life for almost 50 years.
Her youngest son, journalist Jeremy Gavron, was grief stricken when his older brother unexpectedly died and this triggered the need to understand his mother’s death. Among a treasure trove of papers left by his grandfather, he found his mother’s suicide note with the scribbled afterthought “please tell the boys I did love them terribly”. This was the first intimation of his mother’s suicide.
With investigative rigour Gavron pursues the substance behind the enigma of a mother who had never been mentioned in a family home devoid of photos or the pleasure of shared memories. Was the act of suicide so shameful and transgressive in this haute bourgeois, secular intellectual Jewish family that a mother’s memory could be erased so thoroughly?
Hannah Gavron’s story is not unique: its setting is the privileged, highly educated cosmopolitan milieu in which a young woman is able to flourish. Born in Palestine to committed Zionists, the family has returned to Britain in the 1950s. Hannah as a child has tremendous talent, charm and vivacity. She is in analysis at the age of two, her parents devotees of Freud and equally prone to taking to the couch. She excels at school, in show jumping competitions and is a specialist in flirting. She is precocious in every aspect of life. She is also a tremendous show-off with a healthy level of self-absorption.
At a progressive boarding school, Hannah decides she and her friends are overweight and institutes exercises classes, which she leads with the exhortation “that this too too solid flesh would melt”. By 15 she is sexually involved with the charismatic headmaster, a complicated character with a penchant for relationships with students. He comes with a dark backstory of leading a school mountaineering excursion on which a number of boys died.
From school, Hannah progresses to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art but by 18 has dropped out to marry a young businessman with whom she has fallen deeply in love. Two children arrive with predictable promptness. As the 60s progress, Hannah, never one to miss out, senses the tantalising possibilities the decade offers: sexual freedom, experiments in educational practise, nascent unrest among the young, miniskirts, Mary Quant bobs and the mandatory black polo-neck sweater.
With the economic freedom of her class and the ability to outsource domestic duties, she A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for his Mother By Jeremy Gavron Scribe, 320pp, $35
Jeremy Gavron with his mother, Hannah, in 1961 and, right, Gavron today