Dr Jane Hawking: Her own theory on it all

In an interview published a week ago in The National, the 73-year-old author spoke extensively about life with Stephen Hawking

Dr Jane Hawking is speaking at the Emirates Airline Literature Festival in March. Courtesy Emirates Airline Literature Festival
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The below interview references Dr Jane Hawking's planned appearance at Dubai's literature festival last weekend. Dr Hawking had to cancel her appearance at the event "due to circumstances beyond her control" according to organisers, but she spoke to us in advance of the planned trip about her work as well as about her marriage and relationship with Professor Stephen Hawking.

Of the 178 authors scheduled to speak at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, only one is defined in the programme by reference to another person.

“Dr Jane Hawking”, it says, “is a writer and lecturer”. That sentence is interrupted by two commas containing the subordinate clause that, in one form or another, has dogged the 73-year-old author for most of her adult life: “Stephen Hawking’s wife for over 20 years”.

'I became a sort of appendage' 

By now, more than half a century after she fell into the orbit of the brightest star in the contemporary scientific firmament, and 23 years since their 30-year marriage ended in divorce, Jane is more than used to life in the shadow of her famous ex-husband.

“It was very difficult for me when I was much younger, because I just became a sort of appendage,” she says. It wasn’t that she was uncomfortable with her chosen role, “supporting Stephen and making things possible for him. It was more the way other people treated me that was upsetting and depressing”.

Jane Wilde and Stephen Hawking met in 1962 and married in 1965, in romantic defiance of his diagnosis of motor neurone disease and the grim – and, as it turned out, false – prognosis that, at the age of 21, he had two years left to live. As her husband's career took off and his condition worsened, Jane found herself transformed into a carer and, in the stiflingly patriarchal atmosphere that was Cambridge University in the 1960s and 1970s, losing her identity.

British astrophysicist Dr. Stephen Hawking, 47, answers newsmen with the help of his computer and the assistance of his wife Jane, in Paris, March 3, 1989.  Hawking, who has a motor neuron disease communicates with the help of a voice-equipped computer.  (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)
Jane and Stephen pictured during their marriage. AP

“In those days Cambridge was the most extraordinary society,” she tells me when we speak. “Women who were ‘mere’ wives and mothers were totally disregarded. I was doing all the organising for Stephen and the household but I just sort of trailed along behind.”

Just how far behind was brought home during one of the many summer garden parties she put on for Stephen’s colleagues and visiting scientists. “I was passing around trays of cucumber sandwiches,” she says. “One of the guests, an American woman, just looked at me and said ‘Oh, can you get me another drink?’ And I thought, that’s what I’m reduced to now – I’m the kitchen staff.”


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On finding her own path

As the years went by, Stephen’s condition continued to deteriorate and the demands upon Jane grew. Between 1967 and 1979 they had three children, but Jane, who had studied modern languages at university in London, realised she needed something else if she was going to keep her sanity. So she embarked on a PhD in medieval Spanish poetry. “I felt I needed to create an identity for myself and that this was the best way of doing that,” she says.

It was easier said than done. Between managing the household, looking after a disabled husband and raising a young son and daughter, it took her the best part of 12 years. “When I was playing with the children I felt I ought to be working and when I was working I felt I ought to be playing with the children.”

When she became pregnant with her third child she realised she had to get the PhD finished before he was born. She completed it on Good Friday, 1979 – Tim was born two days later.

Doing the PhD “put a huge amount of pressure on me but I was glad I had done it because it meant I wasn’t just a wife, and I had something to show for all those years. Of course, I had the children to show, but that didn’t count in Cambridge in those days. Without that PhD I would have felt completely lost”.

Fame - a somewhat unwelcome partner in their marriage

She had realised early on that there were “several partners” in her marriage – “Stephen and me, motor neurone disease and the goddess of physics”. But in 1988 another, disruptive partner appeared and increased the pressures on the family – fame.

Stephen's global bestseller, A Brief History of Time, exploded into their lives. "It meant that Stephen, who was already famous, became a superstar and I'm not sure it was altogether terribly beneficial to us. It attracted all sorts of people I could well have done without."

Jane doesn't, she says, "resent it in any way because I think it was a tremendous achievement, but it certainly changed our lives. It brought in the film and TV cameras and those were very intrusive, so were the people who came with them".

She came to realise that “we were living with the glittering prizes of the public image but at home it was often the dark face of despair that we were having to cope with”.

Inevitably, perhaps, as Stephen's star rose ever higher his wife felt increasingly left behind. She found friendship, and eventually love, in the company of Jonathan Hellyer Jones, a Cambridge organist and choirmaster whose wife had died several years earlier. They met while Jane was singing in a choir and he became a family friend.

Jane and Stephen separated in 1990, after Stephen announced he had fallen in love with Elaine Mason, one of his nurses, and moved out of the family home. The couple divorced in 1995. Stephen and Mason were married that year, and two years later Jane married Hellyer Jones. After Stephen and Mason divorced in 2006 he and Jane grew closer again, but in the meantime in 1999 she had published her raw memoir of their time together, Music To Move the Stars.

The balancing act of memoir writing

It was this book, revisited by Jane in 2013 as Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, that became the basis of the 2014 film The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne as Stephen and Felicity Jones as Jane.

The first version, Jane admits, had been "rather more passionate", although she takes issue with a 2015 review of the film in The Spectator that described it as "angry". "It wasn't angry," she says. "It was hurt."

A trailer for the film The Theory of Everything, which was adapted from Jane's memoir: 

She’d been reluctant to write a memoir because “it didn’t seem right to put the family on the public stage”. But “unauthorised biographies were appearing, full of errors, and I thought, well, I’m the only person who can write the true account because I have all the memories in my mind”. Besides, “those memories were rather preventing me from getting on with my own life; I felt weighed down by them”.

In the book, she “tried to keep a balance by recounting all the good things that happened, but then there were also all the bad things”. For the second take “I did change the emphasis somewhat. I felt it was terribly important, for Stephen and the children, to keep the family together”.

That same Spectator review dismissed the film as a whitewash that failed to tell "the complicated and disturbing" true story of the relationship. The reality, it proclaimed, was that Stephen was "a misogynist; and also, quite possibly, a narcissist", but that, says Jane, is going a bit far.

"Given the limitations on him, one couldn't have too high expectations of Stephen. Sometimes he could be inconsiderate and he was absorbed in science, but that was good for him because there were so many things he couldn't do, and still can't."

'At first we had a very comfortable truce'

From the outset the match between a scientist and an artist might not have seemed a logical one, "but of course when you're falling head over heels in love you don't think in those terms". But there was an even more fundamental misalignment in their stars – Jane, raised in the Church of England, believed in God, and Stephen, who worshipped at the altar of science, did not.

“At first we had a very comfortable truce,” Jane says. “I understood Stephen’s point of view because if you had been given a death sentence at the age of 21, would you find it easy to believe in a loving God? Also, Stephen’s work was taking him into the depths of the universe and it was, I thought, fairly understandable that there wasn’t much room for God in his equations.”

Yet over the years a subtle irony became apparent – the atheist had become dependent upon the believer to create the stable environment in which his genius could blossom. "I felt I needed the rock of my faith to do what might be expected of me," says Jane. As the relationship continued and the challenges deepened, "I was very dependent on my faith to help me through".

And that faith also helped Jane to see the divine purpose in her husband’s work.

“I thought there must be a loving God acting in his life because he might not have been gifted with the brain of a genius which enabled him to do the science that he could do. He couldn’t walk, he was having difficulty talking, he couldn’t write. All he could do was think, but he could think in such an extraordinary way, in a way not given to many people – to himself and [Albert] Einstein perhaps, but not many others. And that seemed to me to be the most extraordinary gift.”

Writing the memoir of her life with Stephen freed Jane from the millstone of that life to find her own path as an author. "When I was little I used to spend a lot of time making up stories when I was put to bed. I really wanted to write and some frustrated literary agent told me I'd never be able to write a novel unless I wrote my memoir first."

On her novels

Her first novel, Silent Music, was published by Alma Books in 2016. The story of a child growing up in an unhappy family in London after the Second World War, it was the first of a trilogy. Volume 2, Cry To Dream Again, is a prequel, due out in June, and Jane is "just itching" to continue work on the third instalment of the Immortal Souls series upon her return to Cambridge from Dubai.

The title of the series derives from her belief that “everybody has a spark of spirituality and the divine inside them, and that circumstances often combine to prevent that spark from blossoming”. It also reflects her own happy ending.

“I saw Stephen’s spark blossom and my own is blossoming now in so many ways. I have my wonderful children and I’m doing all the things I want to do, especially my writing. I’ve been down a long winding path to reach that ultimate fulfilment but I think I’ve found it now.”

Jane Hawking was due to speak the Emirates Literature Festival on Friday, March 9, but according to the organisers pulled out due to circumstances beyond her control.