Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking
I already posted about the wonderful film The Theory of Everything about the life of Stephen and Jane Hawking here. At that time I wasn’t far into the book, Jane Hawking’s memoir, which the film was based upon. It took me some time to finish the book, read between other fiction novels over a fortnight or so, for it is a bit of a chunkster at 490 densely packed pages.
Jane Hawking first published her memoir in 1999 and the story ended in 1990 after the separation between her and Stephen was made official – this happened after the ending of the film which (started and) finished with Stephen being made a Companion of Honour by the Queen in 1989. In this new abridged version, a postscript brings us up to date.
It takes a special kind of strong woman to fall in love with a man who has been given just two years to live, but that’s what happened to Jane Hawking. Stephen was diagnosed with motor-neuron disease before they married – there is no cure, but amazingly Stephen is still living over fifty years later – a medical phenomenon, even amongst those who contract the rarer, more creeping form of the disease. They didn’t know that would happen then though, and were determined to live life to the full.
Jane looks after Stephen through thick and thin, through the vagaries of university life going from one post to another, relocations around Cambridge, and always the gradual decline of Stephen’s mobility. A fiercely proud man, he totally relied on Jane, and to a lesser extent his research students, to help him get about between home and college. At first Jane was managing to keep her own studies in medieval languages up alongside, but once they had a baby it started to get really difficult. Stephen was very reluctant to start using a wheelchair – but the day came, as did two more children. Stephen’s condition goes up and down – he is prone to frequent choking fits. Gradually the decline results in him needing a tracheostomy to breathe and not choke and in time Stephen meets the computer generated voice that has spoken for him ever since.
Jane has had many battles throughout, and proved to be a tough cookie. She was never really accepted by Stephen’s own family though. Atheists through and through, they could never understand her own needs as a practising Christian. This competition between God and science is one theme that runs through her memoir.
During the middle decades of their marriage, with Stephen on the conference circuit earning his keep at the college, and the demands of motherhood and running the household, it’s not wonder that she was exhausted. Her sense of frustration comes off the page, yet she never says she regrets putting her own life on the back-burner for Stephen. This middle part of the book is undeniably less exciting than the beginning or the end, and the endless detail over every conference and each little obstacle for Jane and Stephen does wear a little thin here.
Relief comes in Jane meeting Jonathan – the local choirmaster who begins to give their son Robert piano lessons, and soon becomes indispensable. Jonathan will eventually become Jane’s second husband, but there is much heartache to come before their developing relationship can be acknowledged. Indeed by the time it was obvious that Stephen now needed wrap-round nursing care, Jonathan had had to go.
It was the arrival of the nursing team that opened the rift between Jane and Stephen. Freed from looking after him round the clock, Jane is momentarily at a loss – and eventually one nurse in particular, Elaine, will edge her out of their marriage for good. It is enough to say that Stephen’s short marriage to his nurse didn’t work out either, there is a sense of schadenfreude about that, but due to having three children together, the Hawkings became friends again.
This is primarily a memoir about a remarkable family and Jane doesn’t let the fact that Stephen is arguably the greatest living scientist get in the way of that. He does come across as pig-headed and proud sometimes – but he is also a loving husband and father, one with his head often in the clouds thinking though. I got a distinct sense that he has used his disability to his advantage – freeing his mind to think.
The fullness of this memoir is, in its way, commendable – it really brings home to us how difficult life was living with someone disabled in this way through decades which weren’t sensitive to such needs. Whether such quantity was needed, I’m not so sure, but Jane Hawking has written a fascinating memoir, and shows us how much she cares for her former husband on (nearly) every page. (7.5/10)
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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
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Travelling to Infinity: The True Story Behind the Theory of Everything by Jane Hawking. Abridged edition pub Dec 2014 by Alma Books, paperback 490 pages.