Interview: Jane Hawking

Joy Persaud

Known as the wife of the brilliant Professor Stephen Hawking for 30 years, Jane Hawking tells us her own story

Jane Hawking’s voice is soft as she speaks about her extraordinary life, which was brought to the big screen in 2014’s Oscar-winning film, The Theory of Everything.

From her young husband Stephen’s two-years-to-live diagnosis, to sacrificing her early career, not to mention hostility from academics, Stephen’s carers and his mother, Jane has faced myriad challenges.

So how did the young woman from St Alban’s cope with the trajectory her life took when, at just 21, she married an aspiring astrophysicist who quickly became a household name, feted by the public as the possessor of the world’s best brain?

"I thought I could perfectly well give two years of my life to this person I loved"

The source of Jane’s strength seems rooted in her upbringing. She describes her parents as “darlings” and says her Christian faith has helped her persevere.

“I think my parents were rather taken aback, but they were very supportive of me when I married Stephen, and my mum, Beryl, encouraged me to keep faith as the way forward,” she says.

“And, of course, there was Stephen and his determination and brilliance, and I wanted to give him as much support as I possibly could because I believed in his theories and he thoroughly justified it. And then, there were my tiny children and they were the most beautiful children anyone had ever seen. They kept me going. But it was pretty hard.”

She recalls her childhood dreams of becoming an air hostess, following her father George into the civil service, or joining the foreign office, but these hopes “went out of the window” when she met Stephen at a party in 1962 and, two years later, became engaged.

“Stephen had been given two years to live so I thought I could perfectly well give two years of my life to this person I loved—he was obviously very clever and I wanted to help him fulfil his ambitions.”

“Back in the 1960s we all lived under the nuclear cloud and we were told that in the event of a nuclear attack we would have four minutes and this overshadowed my adolescence. I thought, Well, if Stephen has been given two years to live and yet we are all being given a four-minute warning about this attack that was going to obliterate us all, what was the difference?

 

At the time of Stephen’s devastating diagnosis, little was known about motor neurone disease, an incurable illness that affects the brain and spinal cord in different ways. Undaunted, Jane took on her role as wife and carer, taking her husband to conferences worldwide and ditching her studies. The frequent travel, she says, was omitted in the film, but was a constant theme in the Hawkings’ lives.

She says, “The first conference we went to was actually on our honeymoon at Cornell University in upstate New York. It was the first time either of us had been to the States and the first time I’d ever flown such distance, but it worked out well.”

"When I settled in Cambridge, most mothers were simply ignored by Cambridge academic society. You were a nobody"

“Then, Stephen was invited in 1967 to the summer school in Seattle and that was a ten-hour flight away with an eight-hour time difference. I was very young and optimistic and I had no idea what was involved with a tiny baby so off we went to Seattle.

“I had Stephen on one arm and a six-week-old baby in the other. It was crazy. I would never, ever in a million years advise anybody to do that, but we did it and when we got there everything was provided on a lavish scale. I was expected to drive an enormous limousine and I had only just passed my test in my Mini. The house we were given… well, you could’ve fit our tiny house in Cambridge into it about four times.”

As Stephen’s illness progressed, Jane chose to pursue her own academic career. The reasons were twofold. First, she wanted to be in a position to provide for her family and, second, she wanted to counter the attitudes of Cambridge academia towards those not in the inner circle.

“My PhD [in medieval Spanish poetry] was about the only thing that was compatible with bringing up a family and looking after Stephen, and so I would take the children to nursery first thing in the morning and then pop off to the university library.

“While I was doing that, I felt I ought to be playing with the children and when I was playing with the children, I felt I should be doing my thesis. I finished it two days before my third child was born.

“When I settled in Cambridge, I found that most mothers were simply ignored by Cambridge academic society. You were a nobody. It has changed tremendously. There’s still quite a lot of antagonism in places for women who are not scholars or in the academic life but I don’t care about that now.”

 

Jane became a lecturer in modern languages and is now retired, focusing on her creative writing. She’s working on the third novel in her Immortal Souls trilogy, to follow up Cry to Dream Again, which was published in August 2018.

Jane’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity, was the basis for the 2014 film that won Eddie Redmayne an Oscar for his portrayal of Professor Hawking. While she’s full of praise for the film—particularly for Redmayne and Felicity Jones, who portrayed Jane (see both above)—the scant detail about her parents was saddening.

“[My mum] and my dad were ready to come over to Cambridge at the drop of a hat to help out. They were such enthusiastic grandparents and so wonderful to the children and did all sorts of things that I wasn’t in a position to do. They used to take them out to London to the theatre or Dad would take them on walking tours of London and they really completed my children’s education.

“Unfortunately they don’t really get a look in, in The Theory of Everything and that upset me. The ironic thing was that the premiere of the film was on December 9, 2014 and that would’ve been my dad’s 100th birthday. It was painful; it was hurtful. But, otherwise, the film was beautiful.

“Eddie Redmayne was unbelievable and when they were filming in a Cambridge college, I went to watch. I saw this person coming towards me and I thought, Oh, that’s Stephen. He was walking just as he did in the 1960s —he was very unsteady and jerky—and I was almost on the point of passing out.

“And Felicity Jones playing me, oh my goodness, she captured all my movements, my gestures, my speech patterns, my voice—everything—and a shiver ran up my spine when I saw her for the first time.”

 

Jane says that being portrayed in a film during their lifetimes was a privilege, though Stephen “would have preferred it to be more about science and less about emotions,” she laughs, adding that her reaction was the opposite.

“The film rather accentuated the differences between Stephen and me. When he says he is an atheist… well, when you think about his diagnosis at the age of 21, how can you say that there is a loving God?

A lot of good things happened to him but, on the other hand, it was a very cruel illness.

"When I settled in Cambridge, most mothers were simply ignored by Cambridge academic society. You were a nobody"

“One day I asked him, ‘How do you decide on a theory?’

He said, ‘Well you have to look at all the possibilities in various areas of research and decide what you’re interested in. Then you decide which area of research is most likely to give you the positive result. So you choose your theory, your area of interest, and then you have to take a leap of faith.’

I said, ‘What? What’s the difference between taking a leap of faith in physics and other people taking a leap of faith in religion?’ He laughed.”

 

Although Jane’s marriage to Stephen ended in 1995, their relationship has been largely harmonious, apart from a time when “certain people came on the scene and went through our lives with a bulldozer”, she says, quickly changing the subject.

When Stephen died in March, Jane found the reaction to his death profound. While the public interest made for an overwhelming experience that added to the family’s pain, she says the funeral and memorial were “beautiful”.

“The one thing that surprised me most of all and took my breath away was the memorial service and the burial in Westminster Abbey. It was magnificent and I had to pinch myself to believe that I was there and that this was all in Stephen’s honour, to be buried among the good and great. It was just an extraordinary thing to witness.”

Jane is now married to musician Jonathan Jones, who was a close family friend. Jane and Jonathan spent many family occasions with Stephen, popping in to visit him on a weekly basis, as he lived close by. Their children, she says, were similarly loyal, “never going off the rails” despite having a severely disabled parent and a life that was often difficult.

Jane is now married to musician Jonathan Jones, who was a close family friend. Jane and Jonathan spent many family occasions with Stephen, popping in to visit him on a weekly basis, as he lived close by. Their children, she says, were similarly loyal, “never going off the rails” despite having a severely disabled parent and a life that was often difficult.

Jane Hawking is appearing at the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival, October 18-21, at the Crown Hotel, Harrogate. Visit harrogateinternationalfestivals.com for the full line-up.