We’re closing 2015 by republishing our ten most-read articles of the year. No9 is Tanya Gold’s piece from January, when The Theory of Everything was released.
Stephen Hawking is a misogynist; and also, quite possibly, a narcissist. You wouldn’t know it from watching The Theory Of Everything, the new biopic from Working Title, in which you are invited only to weep when he discovers he has motor neurone disease at 21, and then marvel at his achievements in physics. It goes wild on the obvious cognitive dissonance of Hawking’s life and work — trapped in his body, yet transported in his mind to the stars.
I cried as Eddie Redmayne — as Hawking — falls, rises and is redeemed with medals too numerous to type; he is very good, but he only goes where the script allows him. But I do not like being manipulated by cinema, unless I know I am being manipulated; and Working Title is usually Steven Spielberg transported to the UK — all sudsy soap and sticky emotion. I am still angry that The Imitation Game, which was supposed to honour the mathematician Alan Turing, managed instead to call him a traitor. It stuck a Soviet spy in his hut, made him blackmail Turing, and he went along with it for fear of being outed as homosexual; less tribute than fiction.
So I read the book this film was based on. It is a memoir by Jane Wilde, Hawking’s wife of 30 years, and it is called Travelling to Infinity. (‘Infinity’, in this case, means ‘divorce’.) She wrote an earlier, angrier memoir, Music to Move the Stars; but this is now ‘revised’. Hawking too has written a memoir — My Brief History. This would never make a film, because it is too brief. It is almost an absence. So the film-makers turned to Jane for their story. They have used her shoddily.
Jane knew Hawking might not live long when they married in 1965. The original prognosis was two years. Even so, they made a home, they travelled to conferences abroad, they had three children. She abandoned her scholarly ambitions — the medieval lyric poetry of the Iberian peninsula, if you care, and he didn’t — to support his.
Her sacrifice deserves thanks, but no thanks came; when he became the youngest fellow of the Royal Society at 32, he made a speech, but he did not mention his wife. And why would he? She had become ‘chauffeur, nurse, valet, cup-bearer, and interpreter, as well as companion wife’; that common ghost that haunts university cities — ‘a physics widow’. (Jane notes that Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva, named ‘physics’ as the co-respondent in her divorce proceedings.) In Cambridge in the 1960s, she writes, ‘The role of a wife — and possibly a mother — was a one-way ticket to outer darkness.’ The talents of the women around her had been ‘spurned by a system that refused to acknowledge that wives and mothers might be capable of an intellectual identity of their own’. This is the hinterland in which a disabled man became a master of the universe; and that is why I call Hawking a misogynist. He may be a talented, or even extraordinary, physicist, but he was a very ordinary husband of his own space and time. He repeatedly refused Jane’s requests for more assistance caring for him. Would he have done more for her, if he could? I doubt it.
Jane began to ‘lose her identity’, although she tried not to. She continued her studies; she sang in a choir; she cared for their children. It was essential, she says, not to abandon them for their father, who used his oldest son, Robert, as nurse and helpmeet from the age of nine; she insists that they are a family and no person is more important than another, even if Hawking yearned for ‘a pedestal’ and wanted her to travel everywhere with him, which she would not do, because she would not leave the children. Hawking resented this; why could he not be a king in his family, when strangers — especially after the publication of his bestseller A Brief History of Time in 1988 — were so adoring? Things became worse after he became world-famous, because people believed he had ‘beaten’ motor neurone disease and the family lived without struggle. This denial extended to his own parents, who would not help Jane; any plea for assistance, she writes, was interpreted as ‘disloyalty’.
The cruellest thing was his refusal to discuss his illness. ‘It was,’ she writes, ‘the very lack of communication that was hardest to bear.’ He insisted on ‘a facade of normality’; yet if he could not acknowledge his own suffering — he ‘never’ talked about the illness — how could he acknowledge hers? He was ‘a child possessed of a massive and fractious ego’, surrounded by a growing entourage of acolytes. Husband and wife became ‘master’ and ‘slave’. They famously fought about religion — he is an atheist, she a Christian, but this feels like a proxy argument. It was the illness that had become ‘a barrier of anguish between us’.
Her revenge on her ‘master’, the ‘all-powerful emperor’, was typical of the voiceless, in that it was passive-aggressive and unanswerable; she fell in love with an organist called Jonathan Jones, and invited him, apparently with her husband’s consent, to spend time with the family. (The relationship was, she insists, initially chaste; they are now married.) Hawking responded by further immersing himself in an entourage that worshipped him and reduced his family to ‘second-class’ citizens. He left Jane in February 1990; the next day he telephoned to invite her to be photographed to publicise the film of A Brief History of Time. He married his chief acolyte, his nurse Elaine Mason; later he divorced her.
Early in her book, Jane says Hawking identified with the hero of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, ‘cursed to roam the seas through storm and wind until he could find someone who would sacrifice herself for love of him’. And that was Jane Hawking’s experience of marriage; except she didn’t let herself drown. This is a story about disability and the wounds it cuts, although it is not the story you will see in The Theory of Everything.
I do not write to insult Professor Hawking. I wouldn’t have written this article at all, but Hawking has endorsed The Theory of Everything, so he must like the portrait of himself that it presents — and torn from his own wife’s furious memoir! To call the disabled saintly when they are not is as prejudiced as calling them sinful; and he of all people should know it. A genius Professor Hawking may be — what do I know of physics? — but he was, if you believe his wife, and I do — a very bad husband indeed.