The Theory of Everything: behind the scenes with Stephen Hawking’s ex-wife

Jane Hawking reflects on her unconventional marriage, and explains why she agreed to a film about her life starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne

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I sensed what Stephen was facing almost from the beginning of our relationship, although not at the time of our first meeting. We met at a New Year’s party in 1963. Shortly afterwards, I saw friends for coffee and they were lamenting Stephen’s fate. He had been taken into hospital for some tests because he had been falling over and couldn’t tie his shoelaces. The results were that he had been diagnosed with a terrible disease that nobody knew anything about. That was really shocking to me; I was 18 and intimations of mortality were not part of my experience.

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It took me a long time to reconcile myself to having a film made about my life with Stephen. Seeing the reality of our marriage transferred onto the big screen was most extraordinary. I wrote my memoir, Travelling to Infinity on which The Theory of Everything [in cinemas from today, 1st January] is based, because I felt that Stephen had become such a significant figure, a scientist of such international renown, that at some future date someone would be sure to attempt an inaccurate, sensationalised biography, possibly including me, possibly writing me out of the script.

The film was approached in the same light: I wanted to be sure of a truthful record and unburden myself of a host of important memories. I also particularly wanted to draw attention to the plight of the disabled and their families.

When I saw Felicity Jones playing me, a frisson ran down my spine. Felicity had come for dinner a couple of times and we had talked a lot. To my amazement, I found that she seemed to have stolen the essence of me, and reproduced my mannerisms and speech patterns; it was like having a twin or a double.

Eddie Redmayne’s representation of Stephen is truly extraordinary. [He and Jones have both been Golden Globe-nominated in the first awards of the season.] Even Stephen himself, when looking at photos, has difficulty in distinguishing which is Eddie Redmayne and which is his young self!

Following that first encounter, Stephen and I came across each other again, quite by chance, on a station platform. He invited me to the opera and the theatre, and to a May ball in Cambridge. I was in my first year, studying modern languages at Westfield College in London, and I struck a bargain with my dad that I would finish my degree if he would allow me to marry Stephen at the end of my second year. There was a natural pressure to marry because we didn’t know how long Stephen was going to live.

Fortunately, Stephen’s is an atypical form of motor neurone disease and of course he has been lucky to have the best treatment available, but the normal course of the disease is to attack and kill its victim in a very short space of time.

I did finish my degree – I didn’t get the first class degree that was expected of anyone with the Hawking name, but I did do well enough to go on to do a PhD in medieval Spanish poetry. I decided I had to do this, because without some kind of academic identity in Cambridge in those days, a mere wife and mother was a nobody. Also, we were at that stage quite poor and we had three young children: Robert, Lucy and Tim. I never knew what the future would bring and it was possible that one day I might have to support the family.

Mostly, we were happy but there were times when it became all too much and I didn’t see how we could continue. The hardest thing was that in my exhaustion, I grew to depend on Robert, when he was only about ten years old. Our gorgeous child, who was so willing to help, was having to do things for his father that children really shouldn’t have to do. Stephen didn’t want to admit that we needed “outside” help, because every stage of deterioration– walking with a stick, having to be fed, having to resort to a wheelchair – hit him very hard.

Naturally he was in denial but also his mind was so deeply involved with the intellectual realms of research into the origins of the universe that he did not have time to think about more mundane matters.

The goddess Physics was Stephen’s idol. I was not jealous of her but she did give me some cause for concern. Sometimes Stephen would spend a whole weekend in his wheelchair, elbow resting on his knee like Rodin’s Thinker. He wouldn’t take any notice of the children, or of me, and I would become very worried. Was he uncomfortable or ill, or had I upset him in some way?

Then, on the Monday morning, he would look up and smile and say, “I’ve solved that equation!” These were truly amazing achievements, because when he reached the stage where he could no longer write, he had to work out absolutely everything in his head. I certainly didn’t feel I could complain, because whichever way I looked at it, Stephen was always worse off than me.

When he achieved fame, and the considerable fortune that A Brief History of Time brought him after its publication in 1988, life became very complicated. I rather felt that the family had been left behind. To me, Stephen was my husband and the father of my children; one does not say to one’s husband, “Oh, you’re so clever! I must worship the ground under your feet, or in this case, wheels.” I found this kind of sycophantic attitude – the attitude adopted by so many people around Stephen – exceptionally frustrating and, of course, it grew a lot worse when we finally had to engage carers.

I was, I suppose, very innocent. I expected that carers came into the home to help look after the disabled person and respect the rest of the family. Very few of them did that. I was desperate; I didn’t think I could carry on, because I
was so drained. Then Jonathan came on the scene and shared the burden. I had met Jonathan, a musician, through singing in a church choir.

Once we realised that we were drawn to each other, it took great reserves of restraint to make our situation work. It would have been easier, in some ways, simply to have walked away, but I could not contemplate doing that because I had devoted myself to Stephen and the children for so long.

The end of the marriage was very traumatic. I suppose I must have been terribly naive. It was predictable that someone would exploit the situation and tell Stephen that he shouldn’t be putting up with such an arrangement. Bulls should be kept out of china shops: they do not help in delicate situations where the principal players have had to take pains to work out how to proceed, in very difficult circumstances, in the best interests of all concerned.

We separated in 1990 and later divorced. Stephen married his carer, Elaine Mason, in 1995 and two years later Jonathan and I were married. However, after all the years that Stephen and I were together, all we had achieved together and the three children we had had together, I still felt that I was needed in a rather ill-defined, protective way.

After Stephen’s second divorce, it became possible for us to communicate again. He lives ten minutes away from us and I call in on him every so often to discuss family matters. When the family are here in Cambridge, we have meals together and I have heard our American grandson declare how lucky he is to have three grandfathers – Stephen, his American grandpa and Jonathan.

People say to me, “Would you do it all again?” As if that were an option! My years with Stephen made for an interesting and fulfilling life. In any case, I have it on good authority that you can’t travel through time or turn the clock backwards!

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The Theory of Everything is released in cinemas today (1st January, 2015)