A Week in Books: Stars fall prey to the scorned spouse
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 07 August 1999
So the forsaken help-meet of the man who scanned the universe is pestered by a bullying taxman "usually employed in pursuit of jobbing builders". The authorial voice - a cherishable blend of Mrs Pooter and Guardian woman - seethes with outrage when the vile Thatcherite state treats her just like a tradesman!
Music to Move the Stars (Macmillan, pounds 20) tells us, naturally, little about science (except when the gap between his iron-clad rationalism and her New Age spirituality causes yet more strain). And it explains rather less than it pretends about the burdens of marriage to a disabled scientific mega-star - an unctuous tone muffles the pain. What it does offer is a splendid compendium of British liberal prejudices. Writers in search of raw data for campus satire will mine this memoir for years.
Of course, the apologia would never have surfaced at all (still less at 610 pages) without our decadent desire to see high intellect brought low. Jane admits "a respected editor at Macmillan" planted the seed, writing to ask "whether I would like to write about my life, in my own terms". Those terms include more than enough media-friendly recrimination to reach to the next galaxy. Far better some honest bonk-and-tell tabloid vulgarity than the ghastly genteel prurience of a "literary" publisher with a scorned spouse on its books. A pox on this whole tacky trade in upmarket vendettas.
So leave the first Mrs Hawking to get a new life. Instead, read Georgina Ferry's tremendous book about the great Nobel-winning biochemist Dorothy Hodgkin (Granta), shortlisted this week for the Marsh Biography Award.
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