Hawking. Star wars

Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking (Alma Books)

So, Mrs Hawking, what’s it like, being married to a genius? Hell on wheels, judging by this brilliant autobiography of the woman who shared Stephen Hawking’s fantastic life for 25 chaotic years.
It says a great deal for Jane Hawking’s character and intelligence that she can, after a marriage that would have broken a saint, retain dignity and insight in the depiction of a wildly challenging struggle with the great mind and crippled body of the physicist who changed the world with the publication of A Brief History of Time.

The teller of the marital tale is a highly civilised individual, who has somehow contrived to survive a battle for which she was unprepared. Perhaps that’s not true: she had been moulded by the spiritual strengths of her decent family.

And every ounce of those strengths was needed in the battle to cope with the searing demands of Stephen’s horrific motor neuron disease, while raising three children (four, in effect, considering the dedicated 24-hour daily nursing required for her husband’s survival).

Picture the harassed wife and mother shoving his heavy wheelchair along, encumbered by a shoulder sling for the baby, and with a toddler in tow.

It is a relief to know that the early stages of their courtship and marriage had its joys. Medical opinion at the time was that Stephen was unlikely to live for more than two years, but the romantic couple decided to tie the knot  in hope and faith. The fear and exhaustion that accompanied rapid physical deterioration soon overtook them.

They lived in modest circumstances. Many years of deprivation were to follow before the world stormed into their lives, pressing accolades, money and medals on a man who had by then lost the power of speech. The throat is a seat of motor neuron, and it took a long time before a suitable voice synthesiser became available. In the interim, his wife and some students had to interpret the whispers of wisdom about the nature of the universe – and of ordinary human needs. Eventually, of course, he commanded the dalek-toned machine that allowed television to broadcast his insights directly to an awed globe.

Academe in the 1970s was not kind to wives. While the Oxbridge male scientists disputed loftily, their women were not expected to utter more than hospitable witterings. Nobody was interested in Jane Hawking’s dreams of a career, and there was scarce time for a quick glance at textbooks while heaving her husband in and out of bed, feeding him medications and tending to clamorous children.  It is awe-inspiring that she managed, after ten years of helter-skelter languages study, to gain a PhD.

When fame and fortune visited the Hawkings, the social and nursing demands rocketed. The stresses involved in dragging the fragile Stephen and his now-sophisticated wheelchair and vocal equipment on to planes and up staircases were eventually modified when nurses could be afforded to ease constant international lecture tours and formal calls on the great and the good.

Hawking gained social confidence from his success and, astonishingly, loved air travel. The family stumbled in his wake, and managed some fun in foreign places. But the unrelenting publicity created an intrusive circus atmosphere. So did the star-struck nurses, who flattered Stephen at the expense of his increasingly weary wife. Eventually, of course, he divorced Jane and married one of his suite of attendants.

It says a great deal for the author that she preserves a courteous calm while gliding over the painful details of the parting. She had had more than enough of pushy media, hangers-on and the lunatic fringe lurking in the garden.  Family life had been seriously disrupted. And she could no longer bear the snubs of her icily intellectual in-laws (“You know, we never liked you”). She mentions Stephen’s second divorce without comment.

Jane joyfully notes her eventual marriage to an old friend and accomplished musician. Now she teaches Modern Languages and has learned to sing, sometimes solo, in concerts.

Stephen always relished Wagner, at full volume, and tended to jeer at Jane’s romantic preference for Brahms. Nowadays they socialise occasionally. The three children are grown-up, and well, and good.

Oh, and Jane has become a writer. An impressively fluent and sensitive writer, with a gift for the cliff-hanger.

• This is a review of an extensively revised version (with new material) of Music to Move the Stars

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