Painfully achieved restora­tion tragedy

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

DEC­LA­RA­TION OF in­ter­est: I knew Jeremy Gavron at univer­sity, through one of the peo­ple who fea­tures in this book. Well, to say that I knew him would be an ex­ag­ger­a­tion; the main thing I un­der­stood about him I had picked up from my friend amid the hearsay of the Cam­bridge so­cial whirl.

What I knew of him seemed ter­ri­ble — that his mother was an iconic early 1960s fem­i­nist; when he was very small she had turned on a gas cooker and killed her­self.

Gavron has borne this knowl­edge nearly all his life. Whether be­cause of the times or out of re­spect for her grief­stricken fam­ily, the cat­a­clysm prompted those in in­tel­lec­tual Jewish north Lon­don who knew Hannah Gavron to fall silent. The cause of her death, the woman be­hind it, re­mained an un­ex­plained scar, even if the story fol­lowed her son for years.

In A Woman on the Edge of Time, Gavron sets out to give form to the mist of a life­time’s emo­tions and barely un­der­stood cer­tain­ties. He was 29, the same age as his mother when she died, be­fore he saw scrib­bled on the back of an en­ve­lope her part­ing words: “Please tell the boys I did love them ter­ri­bly!”

De­spite echoes of the sui­cide nearby of Sylvia Plath just two years ear­lier, there was no scan­dal. No one spoke much more — and cer­tainly not to her two chil­dren — about the young wife of ris­ing print­ing mag­nate Bob Gavron. Hannah had been an as­pir­ing aca­demic so­ci­ol­o­gist. Her study of mar­ried women’s lives, The Cap­tive Wife, wasac­claimed­when­it­came­out­posthu­mously in 1966.

There had never been an ap­pro­pri­ate time, or need, to in­ves­ti­gate be­fore but, in mid-life, Gavron found him­self con­tact­ing dozens of her friends and col­leagues. He grasped back through re­ver­ber­a­tions and con­ceal­ments to por­tray his mother through­frag­ments of theirmem­o­ries, a woman of rare en­ergy who lit up a room. The re­sult is a brave reck­on­ing with fam­ily se­crets. Gavron views his in­her­i­tance from the twin stand­points o f a s o n , u n moore d but voic­ing tricky ques­tions to his fa­ther, and of a hard­ened jour­nal­ist, widen­ing his pool of con­tacts and per­sist­ing in his enquiries.

He is ten­der to­ward the young Hannah, yet full of dread, never sure what he might un­earth. His grand­fa­ther’s diary and Hannah’s ju­ve­nile let­ters to friends yield the­o­ries that re­main ten­u­ous. She had what she called an “af­faire” with her board­ing-school head­mas­ter. This man, Gavron finds, had mis­ad­ven­tures with young peo­ple in his charge go­ing back to the 1930s, that no one seemed to ques­tion. Ever rest­less, she left school early for RADA, only to drop out for mar­riage, which she soon com­bined with univer­sity.

It is hard to know what she wanted. The end was pre­ceded by an­other, dra­matic, failed af­fair. But the son does not ap­por­tion blame. Ex­cept per­haps for the times in which she lived. Hannah had in­ter­viewed nearly 100 women trapped at home for a the­sis that be­came The Cap­tive Wife. Thwarted in se­cur­ing an aca­demic po­si­tion her­self, she was clearly too chal­leng­ing to the male sta­tus quo.

That­book­wasHan­nah’sachieve­ment — to Bob Gavron the core thing worth keep­ing of her. Fifty years later, her son risked be­tray­ing her fam­ily and friends sim­ply by ask­ing. But, through them, he has re­stored her legacy.

Hes­ter Abrams is a free­lance re­viewe

Brief

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