Jane Hawking on life with Stephen
Living with Stephen made me suicidal but I do still love him.
Jane Hawking tells Celia Walden how she remains good friends with her physicist ex-husband
When Jane Hawking was first sent the script of The Theory of Everything - James Marsh's 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. Then I deleted the F-word, which appeared two or three times on every page.
Jane told Working Title, the film's producer: "Scientists in the 1960s and 70s didn't use the F-word and I'm pretty sure they don't now either."
"So the F-word was taken out and I was pleased for that small success," she says.
Stephen Hawking's first wife could never have imagined what a staggering success the low-budget British film that was 10 years in the making would be. Nominated for five Oscars, four Golden Globes and 10 Baftas (with 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.
"When I first saw Eddie on set I was dumbstruck, because there was Stephen as he was in the 60s. 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. I still can't watch her without tears coming into my eyes, because I know that it's me.
"Honestly," she adds, taking a sip of tea, "I don't know how I did it."
Nobody who has 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 question. Diagnosed with motor neurone disease at 22, just one month after Jane met the Oxford graduate, Hawking was given two years to live.
In the film, when assuring Hawking's family she wants to commit herself to the man she loves regardless of his condition, Jane concedes: "I know that I don't look like a very strong person."
Perhaps back then she didn't. But half a century later the woman opposite me at her son Timothy's dining table in Ealing, west London, has the serenity and quiet confidence born of hardship and success. "When Stephen was first diagnosed, we weren't going out together, but I was already falling in love with him," she says.
"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 I could easily devote two years of my life to help somebody I loved - someone who had so much potential - achieve his ambitions."
It helped that Jane - who had a strong Christian ethic thanks to her parents and her education at St Albans High School for Girls, where many pupils went on to become missionaries - had her faith. "That gave me great strength, because I felt I was doing the right thing. Stephen's intelligence fascinated me.
"I was no mathematician myself and hopeless at physics, yet he could explain things to me. We would look up at the night sky together, and although Stephen wasn't 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 to form a black hole, in a way that was 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 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 you think is going to be most productive.' I said: 'Really? I thought faith had no part to play in physics?'
"Today, when I think it has been 52 years since Stephen was first diagnosed, that is a miracle," she adds soberly. "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."
One of those times, documented in the film, was when Hawking underwent 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 drove her several times 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.'
"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 her husband needed round-the-clock care - something they couldn't afford without begging for money from philanthropic foundations in the United States - it didn't provide the relief she craved. "The NHS was 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 marginalised 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 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 - 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. He continues to enjoy that fame today - which he should."
Hawking eventually left Jane for his carer, Elaine Mason, whom he subsequently married.
Much has been written about the acrimony surrounding Jane and Stephen's divorce in 1991 but there is no ill-feeling in evidence today.
"We're good friends," insists Jane, who is now married to organist Jonathan Hellyer Jones and lives 10 minutes from Hawking. "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."
- The Telegraph, London