Books: Stephen Hawking: the man who mistook his wife for a nurse

Music to Move the Stars: A Life With Stephen by Jane Hawking Macmillan pounds 20

When Jane Wilde married a young research student named Stephen Hawking in 1965, she already knew he was seriously ill. A schoolfriend broke the news a couple of years before, saying that Stephen was suffering from "some terrible, paralysing, incurable disease". This is probably a fair representation of what was known then about motor neurone disease, long before the worldwide success of A Brief History of Time and Stephen's battle against the illness combined to raise its public profile.

What is striking about Jane's account of their courtship is her readiness to marry someone with such a grim diagnosis, whose physical condition was deteriorating before her eyes. Stephen's father bluntly told her that his son's life would be short, as would his "ability to fulfil a marital relationship", and advised her to have children quickly. His mother tried to warn her about the horrifying symptoms to expect, but Jane rejected the offer of information.

"I replied that I would prefer not to know the details of the prognosis," she writes, "because I loved Stephen so much that nothing could deter me from wanting to marry him: I would cook and wash and shop and make a home for him, dismissing all my own previous ambitions which were now insignificant by comparison with the challenge before me." It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jane, who had not yet graduated from college, did not know what she was taking on. Although Stephen defied the imminent death sentence passed upon him, and is still alive today, the details of his physical decline are relentless.

Jane's determination to care for him, and to create an environment in which he could continue his ground-breaking work on black holes, takes up many more pages than her account of their eventual separation. This is not a vindictive book, although the agony she went through is palpable; if Stephen's struggle to keep his mind clear is heroic, so is her determination to balance his escalating needs and those of their three children. Jane emerges as decent and honest, even if her prose sometimes resembles the summaries of family news that fall out of cards at Christmas. But the book raises difficult issues, not in the way of Margaret Cook's spiteful demolition of her ex-husband Robin, but because it suggests connections of which its author seems to be unaware - and which she might find uncomfortable.

Hers is the story of a marriage based on a pairing of male ego and female submissiveness, the worldly manifestations of which she finds disturbing. In Cambridge, and at conferences all over the world, physicists gather in excited groups, while their wives are relegated to the status of second-class citizens. This is an early cause of dissent in the Hawking household, making Jane feel she has become "little more than a drudge, effectively reduced to that role which in Cambridge academic circles epitomised a woman's place".

In spite of this, she manages to bring up their children and even complete her own PhD. Cruelly, her husband's fame and his disease seem to progress in tandem, his body ever more wasted as his celebrity increases. Jane is gradually transformed from his wife into his nurse, her functions becoming "maternal rather than marital". That this development might be fatal to the marriage is obvious, although Jane hopes in vain for a new kind of relationship, based on intellectual companionship. Astonishingly for a woman with her conventional background and Christian beliefs, she responds by finding a friend and lover, a musician who is accepted into the household. This unusual arrangement is disrupted not by Jane's decision to leave Stephen for her lover, which she insists was never her intention, but her husband's eventual abandonment of her for one of his nurses.

At one level, this looks like a straightforward switch: a decision by a needy and imperious man to swap his wife-nurse, who has tried to save herself by developing limited interests of her own, for a nurse-wife who is willing to devote all her energies to him. The jarring note is not Jane's description of her distress at this turn of events, which is utterly convincing, but why it did not occur to her to leave a marriage in which she had come to feel so completely unvalued.

Her answer, that she still loved her husband, may be enough for some readers. What is suggestive, however, is her overwhelming need to believe in something - either God, whose existence is denied by Stephen, or that form of authority represented by her "genius" husband. Just before their marriage breaks down, she reveals to a journalist that her role no longer consists of promoting his success but of "telling him that he was not God".

In the context of their life together, it is easy to construe this as heresy, and to link it to Stephen's departure not long afterwards. It also goes some way to explain why, when Jane reflects on her life since the separation and divorce, she sounds a little directionless in spite of her own happy second marriage. Even if her marriage to Stephen Hawking developed into an uneasy alternation between maternal concern and filial rebellion, it seems to have provided her with a mission whose high cost she was never unwilling to pay.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee