Travelling to Infinity
by Jane Hawking
A few weeks ago, I went to see the award-winning James Marsh film, The Theory of Everything, with Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and Felicity Jones as his wife, Jane.
I don’t know Stephen Hawking personally but have been an admirer of Hawking the scientist for a long time now. The acting in the movie was superb and the storyline gave me a lot to think about. Often, film-makers mess with books so that the original work becomes unrecognisable, and I wondered, was it really like that? So I decided to read the book to find out. I was surprised to learn that Jane Hawking had first published her memoir in 1999, under the title Music to Move the Stars.
Stephen Hawking is such a well-known personality that he needs no introduction. Most people in the world will recognise his photograph and will know of his books and other publications, even if they haven’t read them. Struck down with motor neurone disease in his early twenties, confined to a wheelchair and, since 1985, deprived of the power of natural speech, Hawking has defied the odds to become one of the most important scientists and mathematicians of his generation (and probably of any other). But what about Jane, his first wife and mother of his three children?
‘ “Oh Jane! You are marrying into a mad, mad family!” ‘
The Theory of Everything, the movie, brilliant though it is, gives a very condensed – and even sanitised – version of the Hawkings’ life together. Travelling to Infinity paints an altogether different picture. Two remarkably intelligent and ambitious people are trapped by fate in what seems an ‘impossible marriage’, where the career and emotional needs of one are subordinated to the career and physical needs of the other. Here, we have in Jane’s own words how she fell in love and married a man whom she knew to have a terminal illness; how, putting aside her plans for an academic career of her own, she looked after Stephen’s medical needs (with apparently very limited help from the NHS), encouraged him in his work, travelled with him (despite a morbid fear of flying), and bore and brought up their children. These things she did for twenty-five years, living as an appendage in her husband’s shadow, losing her confidence and sense of worth, until the marriage was ripped apart by the intrusions of the press, film crews, a life lived in the public domain, accusations of disloyalty and an ever-present gaggle of nurses and other carers.
‘My spirit rebelled at the shallowness of so many of the people who had recently come into our lives. They had never come face to face with successions of multiple crises. They had never had to confront the overwhelming trauma of living in the face of death;’
The story begins in the early 1960s when Stephen, newly graduated from Oxford, invites Jane to a party. It takes us through their early years together, the diagnoses of Stephen’s illness, the trips to Europe and America, the countless awards and honours and the eventual publication of A Brief History of Time. It also gives us a glimpse of their most unusual family life as well as of the rigid and unfeeling world of academia. There is much name-dropping, not one feels with any attempt to impress but simply as a natural consequence of the circles in which the Hawkings move – Kip Thorne, Roger Penrose, Richard Feyman, and many more with which anyone interested in science will be familiar.
The Hawkings’ lives are never normal, and Jane does not pretend that they are. One surmises that being the wife of a genius is bound to leave a woman isolated at times. Jane’s own academic interests, languages and mediaeval Spanish poetry, are poles apart from questions about the origins of the universe and from the scientific cadre in which Stephen moves. Awareness of crippling illlnesses like motor neurone disease and multiple sclerosis in 1960s to 1980s Britain was scant and health service provision inadequate. We are constantly being reminded that, although neither of the Hawkings come from poor families, the pressures to finance Stephen’s care are always severe. That the Hawking children have apparently found success in their chosen careers is in no small measure due to a mother who was prepared to sacrifice her own identity to ensure their lives were as ‘normal’ as they could possibly be.
Because it deals with real people, Jane Hawking’s writing is not without humour. But, as well as a memoir about devastating illness, about genius and success, about hope and despair, Travelling to Infinity is above all a book about friendship and love. For, without love, how could this ‘impossible marriage’ have survived as long as it did? Without friendship, how might the relationship between two immensely courageous people have survived the break-up and two divorces and remarriages that, to express in Jane’s final words:
‘In fact we are all just about to go on holiday together!’