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12 November 2015

Hannah Gavron: a woman ahead of her time

“I’d been brought up with the character,” the writer Jeremy Gavron says of his mother Hannah. “Having lived so long with fairy tales and evasions, what I wanted was the facts.”

By Philip Maughan

On 14 December 1965, Hannah Gavron, a 29-year-old sociologist with two young sons, a forthcoming book and a lectureship at a prestigious art college, sealed herself into a neighbour’s kitchen and turned on the gas oven. Her death paralleled an incident that took place two years earlier, when Sylvia Plath – another accomplished young woman – committed suicide less than 150 yards away, aged 30, on Fitzroy Road in Primrose Hill, north London.

I meet Jeremy Gavron, an author and the younger of Hannah’s two sons, on a bitter but bright day at a café close to the house where his mother died almost 50 years ago. For the past six years, Gavron has been seeking out people who knew Hannah: school friends, colleagues, lovers, most of whom are now in their seventies. The stories they told have been collected in a new book, A Woman on the Edge of Time, and these do not always make for comfortable reading.

“It’s funny, writing the book now that I’m old enough to be Hannah’s father,” says Gavron, who is 53. “Sometimes I was reacting like a son but other times I was reacting like a dad.”

Born in Palestine in 1936, Hannah Gavron was a magnetic and precocious child – but then she ought to have been. Her father was the distinguished Zionist writer T R Fyvel, a confidant to George Orwell (who would read to Hannah as a child). She skipped ahead a year at school and won awards for showjumping and poetry before enrolling, aged 16, at Rada, where family lore held that she acted in Shakespeare plays opposite Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole – though this turned out to be false.

“I’d been brought up with the character,” says Gavron, who spent the earlier part of his career working as a journalist in Africa. “Having lived so long with fairy tales and evasions, what I wanted was the facts.”

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Hannah was also said to have had an affair with her boarding school’s headmaster. Her romantic entanglements are catalogued in letters to her friend Tash, spread throughout the new book, though it is never clear to what degree they were actualised.

“So few children know this much about their parents,” I say. “Especially their love lives,” Gavron adds.

After quitting Rada to marry Jeremy’s father, Robert – a successful publishing entrepreneur and Labour peer who died this year – Hannah studied at Bedford College, part of the University of London, for the next eight years. Her doctoral thesis concerned “sad, lonely mothers of the working and middle class” – a subject that was resisted by the heads of her department, all of them male, both for its subject matter and “qualitative” approach. But it was published in book form as The Captive Wife, to rave reviews, a few months after her death.

“It’s true about Hannah what Frieda said about D H Lawrence,” a childhood friend of Hannah’s told Gavron. “She lived every moment to the fullest possible extent.” Hannah had married Robert when she was 18 and he was 24. “We were too young,” Robert later reflected. Perhaps as a result of this – not to mention the pressures of work and parenthood – Hannah began an affair with a colleague, a gay man she convinced herself could be a permanent prospect. It was just the kind of youthful folly she had neglected earlier by being so driven.

“I think if she’d survived that day, she would’ve lived,” Gavron says. “She thought her book was no good but the world would’ve opened up for her. She’d have had the opportunity to be like Joan Bakewell, or ultimately Germaine Greer; to speak for womanhood. That’s where the title of my book comes from. She was just a little ahead of her time.” 

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This article appears in the 11 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain