Jane Hawking: 'Living with Stephen made me suicidal but I still love him'
Former wife of the physicist reveals the secrets of their life together
When Jane Hawking was first sent the script of The Theory of Everything– James Marsh’s Oscar-winning film adaptation of her book, Travelling to Infinity – she made two changes. “First, I took out the word ‘campus’ to describe Cambridge, because we don’t have university campuses in England, and then I deleted the F-word, which appeared two or three times on every page. “‘Scientists in the 1960s and 70s didn’t use the F-word’,” Jane informed Working Title, “‘and I’m pretty sure they don’t now either.’ So the F-word was taken out and I was pleased, actually, for that small success.”
(Left) The Theory of Everything starring Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking. (Right) Stephen and Jane after he received an Order of the Companions of Honour from the Queen
Stephen Hawking’s first wife could never have imagined what a staggering success the low-budget British film that was ten years in the making would be. Nominated for five Oscars, four Golden Globes and ten BAFTAs (with actor Eddie Redmayne, who played the world-famous scientist, winning Best Actor in all three), the film grossed £77 million worldwide. “Because Eddie is so totally unaffected and unpretentious everyone was very pleased for him when he won everything,” says Jane, a spry 71 year-old with clear blue eyes and a girlish smile. “And I remember that when I first saw Eddie on set I was dumbstruck, because there was Stephen as he was in the 60s, coming towards me. Of course I was very sad that Felicity [Jones] didn’t win either an Oscar or a BAFTA, because although Eddie’s part was transformational and very physical, hers was more internal and really brought out the emotional strain that I felt for all those years. Still now I can’t watch her without tears coming into my eyes, because I know that it’s me. And honestly,” she adds, taking a small sip of tea, “I don’t know how I did it.”
Nobody who has either read Jane’s poignant account of her 26-year marriage to the author of a Brief History of Time or seen the film can help but ask that same question. Diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease at 22, just one month after Jane met the Cambridge graduate, Hawking was given two years to live. In the film, when assuring Hawking’s family that she wants to commit herself to the man she loves regardless of his condition, Jane’s character concedes: “I know that I don’t look like a very strong person.” And perhaps back then she didn’t. But half a century later the woman seated opposite me at her son Timothy’s dining table in Ealing has the serenity and quiet confidence born of both hardship and success. “When Stephen was first diagnosed, we weren’t actually going out together, but I was already falling in love with him,” she says gently. “He had beautiful eyes and this amazing sense of humour, so we were always laughing. Also I was young and had lots of energy and optimism and that did make a difference. But most importantly I loved Stephen and wanted to do my best for him. So I thought that I could easily devote two years of my life to help somebody I loved – someone who had so much potential – achieve his mbitions."
It helped that Jane – who had a strong Christian ethic thanks to her parents and her schooling at the Saint Albans High School for girls, where many went on to become missionaries – had her faith. “That did give me great strength, because I felt that I was doing the right thing. And Stephen’s intelligence fascinated me. I was no mathematician myself and hopeless at physics and yet he could explain things to me. We would look up at the night sky together, and although Stephen wasn’t actually very good at detecting constellations, he would tell me about the expanding universe and the possibility of it contracting again and describe a star collapsing in on itself to form a black hole in a way that was quite easy to understand.”
The film overplays a marital conflict caused by Jane’s Christianity and Hawking’s Atheism, when in fact their differing beliefs were a great source of banter between the two. “Stephen made quite a point of keeping me guessing as to whether he was Agnostic or Atheist, but I liked to trip him up,” she says with a mischievous smile. “I remember once asking him how he knew which theory to work on, to which he replied: ‘Well you have to take a leap of faith in choosing the one that you think is going to be most productive.’ I said: ‘Really? I thought faith had no part to play in physics?’ And today,” she adds soberly, “when I think that it has been 52 years since Stephen was first diagnosed, that to me is a miracle. Ok, it may be a miracle of modern medicine and Stephen’s own courage and perseverance but it is also quite simply a miracle. There were plenty of times when I thought he wouldn’t make it.”
Jane Hawking pictured in 1989
One of those times, documented in the film, was the moment Hawking was forced to undergo an emergency tracheotomy in Geneva, robbing him of his remaining speech. “I couldn’t let him die; I was the agent of life for Stephen,” Jane says quietly. “But everything looked very bleak after that.” Caring for her husband and their three children single-handedly had several times driven her to the brink of suicide, she admits. “Stephen said to me early on: ‘Where there is physical illness, you can’t afford to have psychological illness as well’, and by extension I felt that should be my mantra too. But sometimes life was just so dreadful, so physically and mentally exhausting, that I wanted to throw myself in the river – although of course I stopped myself because of the children.” But when Jane was told that her husband needed around the clock care – something they couldn’t afford without begging for money from philanthropic foundations in the States – it didn’t provide the relief she craved. “The NHS were no help at all. We had to advertise for help.
“From the moment the nurses came into our home to look after Stephen, our household was turned upside down,” says Jane. “The rest of us were marginalized and pushed into a corner.”
The fame Hawking garnered after the publication of A Brief History of Time in 1988 only made things worse. “It drew all sorts of people into our circle and really made our home life intolerable.” Jane remembers that her teenage daughter Lucy would be sitting at the breakfast table reading the newspaper, only to have it “whipped away from under her nose by one of the nurses and set at the end of the table for Stephen, who probably wouldn’t come down for another ten minutes anyway. It was as though nobody else but him mattered.” Did fame change him, as well as those around him? “Yes,” she says cautiously, “but I don’t want to go into that. The great thing was that it gave him the recognition he deserved for all his extremely hard work. And he continues to enjoy that fame today – which he should.”
Hawking eventually left Jane for his carer Elaine Mason, whom he subsequently married.
Stephen Hawking with his wife Jane Hawking and son Timothy in Cambridge
Much has been written about the acrimony surrounding the couple’s divorce in 1991 but that ill-feeling is not in evidence today. “We’re good friends,” insists Jane, who is now married to organist Jonathan Hellyer Jones and lives ten minutes away from Hawking’s Cambridge home, where she regularly enjoys family dinners with their three children Robert, 48, Lucy, 45, and Timothy, 36. “Our marriage was a great success. Stephen achieved what he wanted to achieve, we kept going for a very long time, and we had three wonderful children together.” What does she feel when she looks at him now? “I feel a great deal of admiration – and a lot of love for him too. It’s not the same kind of passionate love as before, but yes, I do still love him.”
When Hawking first saw the film, Jane laughs, “he said: ‘I would have liked more science and less emotion.’ My reaction was ‘I would have liked more emotion and less science’.” As well as promoting worldwide awareness for the victims of ALS and their families - and Jane says she “hopes that this new government will carry on the good work by promoting the interests of Motor Neurone disease sufferers” - the film has “also brought us all very much closer together,” she maintains. “I think the film has shown Stephen things he probably didn’t know about my struggles, and how I really did try my best to support him over such a long period. Not that I blame him for being unaware of those things: from his point of view, if you had arms and legs, everything must be easy.”
With the rest of this year devoted to book festivals and publicity tours, Jane doesn’t know how she’ll feel when the madness dies down. “I still don’t believe everything that has happened,” she shrugs. “I think it’s a dream that I’m in and when it all comes to an end, I’m going to go back to being Cinderella.”