What made her go away
completes a groundbreaking doctoral study on the life of the contemporary housewife, later published as The Captive Wife. It becomes an influential text, pre-empted only by the publication of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook in 1962, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and Gloria Steinem’s expose of Playboy culture.
Jeremy Gavron believes his mother was too far ahead of her times. She was certainly in the vanguard of her generation who were caught between the stifling conventions of the 50s and the revolution of the late 60s. The critique of the institution of marriage was in its formative phase during Hannah’s last years. It would take until the 70s for the publication of second-wave feminists such as Sheila Rowbotham, Shulamith Firestone, Germaine Greer and Juliet Mitchell to bring into the public sphere the enduring principle that the personal is political.
Hannah Gavron in the early 60s is finding this out for herself, struggling to reconcile competing drives and desires.
After finishing her doctorate, Hannah applies unsuccessfully for a number of teaching roles. It is probably her first experience of being thwarted, a denial of her obvious talents. Beyond the loving and encouraging embrace of her parents and husband, she encounters a deeply sexist workplace. The academy is far from a place of gender equity. She is accused of wearing too much eye make-up by one professor and male academics are the routine source of chauvinist jokes: “What is that scrabbling noise? That is the sound of a woman trying to get promoted.”
As the author points out, his mother’s journey took place in an era when abortions were still illegal, husbands completed their wives’ tax forms, and a husband could not be accused of raping his wife. Hannah finally secures a teaching job at the “it” place of the 60s: the Hornsey Art School, where she falls in love with a male fellow teacher. She takes the romance too seriously and her homosexual lover retreats.
Devastated by the affair’s end, she goes to a friend’s apartment less than two streets away from that other dazzling talent of the period, Sylvia Plath, turns on the gas and ends her life. Was this a melodramatic gesture, a tragic but momentary failure of courage, or a lapse into pessimism by a young woman driven by optimism and self-belief?
A Woman on the Edge of Time is a book of exemplary research, as Gavron trudges through papers and diaries and tracks down relatives,