What made her go away

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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,

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