First published by The Australian, 1 January 2000

Music to Move the Stars

By Jane Hawking

Macmillan, 610pp, $45

STEPHEN Hawking – “the black hole man”, as Queen Elizabeth is said to have described him – has fascinated us for some years now. It’s not a little to do with the paradox of his paralysis-ravaged, wheelchair-bound body that nevertheless harbours a mind that can roam the universe and produce intellectual leaps that have taken him to audiences around the world. But few would have given much thought to the woman in his life who, in many ways, suffered a much greater psychical and mental imprisonment because of his condition.

His first wife, Jane Wilde, was just 21 when she married the 23-year-old Hawking as the first signs of his degenerating motor skills were showing in his drunken gait and his prognosis for longevity was pessimistic. It’s not hard – although perhaps a little unkind – to think that it was the image of a somewhat tragic, but eccentric and older Oxford student with the skewed bow-tie, skewed manners and foppish hair that captured the imagination of a romantic young girl. The young Jane is in awe of the young Hawking’s intellect, even as she’s taken aback by his combativeness. He reassures her that intellectual differences need not be taken personally. So it’s all the more striking when the irreconcilable differences between the rational scientist and the more spiritually bent Jane eventually play a key role in the breakdown of their marriage.

His family is an intellectually competitive and superior lot, according to her telling. It certainly does not welcome her into its collective bosom. “We never really liked you,” his mother even tells her at one point. You feel their coldness and rejection: “in their eyes I was just a drudge, the vehicle for producing their three grandchildren”. Affairs don’t really improve when the young couple moves to Cambridge, where wives (but not mistresses) are banished from college high tables and where condescension and academic pettiness abound. By Jane’s account, she is often treated with as much interest and sensitivity as an inanimate life support machine for her husband (which is what she often was).

But a number of kindly souls also come in and out of their increasingly internationally mobile lives. Curiously, Australian friends and colleagues pop up with the frequency of our soap stars in London’s West End. At times, the book reads like a catalogue of slights and favours.

While she glosses over the actual mechanics, the Hawkings produce three children (two boys and a girl). But the growing physical distance between them parallels their increasing emotional and mental distance. “It was becoming very difficult – unnatural, even – to feel desire for someone with the body of a Holocaust victim and the undeniable needs of an infant,” she so candidly writes. Her pleasure is eventually destroyed by the knowledge that in the act that creates life she could end his.

Somewhere along the way – in between cooking Hawking’s gluten-free diet, baking children’s birthday cakes and serving cucumber sandwiches to post-seminar soirees – she also manages to produce a PhD thesis. Her textual detours into her topic of love poetry in medieval Spain are engaging and stimulating, and you amaze at her ability to shift gears in between the sheer grunt and grind. But it’s probably also what kept her sane. Hanging on to her own academic life was certainly a necessary salve to her feelings of inferiority among the academic set, and probably crucial to sustaining some sort of equilibrium in her marriage.

Reflecting the chaos of her life, her book reads as part memoir, part political tract for the rights of the disabled, part travel literature, part PhD thesis. In a lesser writer, these sharp stylistic shifts would have been disorientating, if not pretentious, but mostly you are happy to go along on the ride. Some scenes, such as a private drawing room meeting with the Queen where Hawking plays carpet removalist with his wheelchair, are hilariously described.

The real hero of her book, however, is the gentle musician Jonathon Hellyer Jones, a local Cambridge man who comes into her family’s life just before the birth of her third child, and just after his wife died of leukemia. He’s the man she eventually marries.

When he enters the book, so does the flowery language: “We tentatively allowed the poor, sickly plant of our relationship to come out into the opening for an airing and to bloom.” In contrast to the increasingly selfish Hawking, Jones is constantly described as selfless and supportive in Jane’s struggle to keep her fractured family together. Their relationship (which her husband apparently tacitly approved of) is also the catalyst for her re-entry into the church – yet another barrier in the marital relationship. Hawking had no time and no mind for such pursuits.

While her love for Jones grew, so did her disillusionment with Hawking and the round of nurses she eventually persuades him to accept. After steadfastly refusing daily professional help for years, Hawking – who resents her fear of flying and reluctance to leave their children – taunts her with his nurses’ willingness to accompany him on yet another overseas tour. For her part, she endlessly disparages “malicious”, “manipulative”, “wayward” nurses, and her treatment of them sits uncomfortably with her constant desire for help in the hundreds of pages prior. No doubt there were mischief-making personalities among them – perhaps not least of which was the nurse who eventually married Hawking, if you accept this version of the story – but her “I-gave-my-all-and-they-did-me-wrong” tone is eventually tiresome and off-putting.

The warring camps eventually dig into their opposing positions. Jane believes his family and helpers have poisoned his mind against her. The end comes when he calls her back from her French country retreat for a reconciliation, only to find he intends no reconciliation at all. The “limpid grey eyes” that once warmed her heart have turned to permafrost. At this point, the engaging detail of earlier chapters becomes claustrophobically overwhelming, putting the reader uncomfortably in the midst of a bitter separation. You are almost thankful when she concludes that Hawking’s genius and sickness could justify so much of his behaviour and her sacrifices. It’s a victory for science, if not for feminism. But don’t for a minute imagine she’s an insignificant woman.

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