Traveling To Infinity

In her book, Jane Hawking speaks of her life as the first wife of Stephen Hawking and how their marriage broke down after Stephen's health got progressively worse in the mid-1980s.

Written by Christina Houen and Originally Published in AU News on December 7th, 2010.

We hear, from time to time, of the stellar career of Stephen Hawking, the genius who gave us the Black Hole theory, the bestseller, A Brief History of Time (which sold 25 million copies), and recently another bestseller, The Grand Design, which seeks to explain the mysteries of the universe through one unified "M-theory". He is equally well known for surviving, for an astonishing 47 years, the death sentence delivered when he was 23 and diagnosed with motor neurone disease, with a prognosis of two years, at best.

Jane Hawking, his first wife, tells her story of their lives together in this memoir, which updates and abridges the earlier version, Music to Move the Stars, written in 1999, in the first flush of grief after the breakdown of their marriage.

Their union was one of opposites: he loves Wagner, she loves romantic, baroque and church music. He is a pure physicist, she a scholar of medieval Spanish poetry. He is an atheist who asserts that God is unnecessary to explain the universe; she is an Anglican whose faith has sustained her through all the trials and challenges of their life together.

He avoids personal disclosure and emotional expression, and cherishes intellectual inquiry above all else; she longs for intimacy and sharing. Given his arrogant, authoritarian personality (laced with a good measure of charm and impish humour) and her more yielding, sensitive character, it is no surprise that her domestic life has been one of submission and sacrifice, particularly given the burden of his illness, which has made him physically helpless and in need of 24-hour care. After a life-threatening episode of pneumonia, he endured a tracheotomy operation in 1985.

This was the beginning of the end of their marriage. A team of specialist nurses was hired, and one of these, Elaine Mason, became the cuckoo in the family nest.

Jane describes the insensitive, ignorant behaviour, the backbiting and jealousy, of some of the nurses, but does not refer to the allegations of cruelty and abuse against Stephen's second ex-wife, which he himself has resolutely refused to discuss. Jane is generous in her estimation of Stephen's character and transparent in her confessions of guilt and anguish over her love for the man who became her second husband.

Jonathan Jones, a young choirmaster, rescued her from despair and suicidal thoughts. Much later, they became lovers, but always kept their relationship in the background, while Jonathan supported her and Stephen and the children in every way he could.

One indication of her sacrifice on the twin altars of genius and disability is that her PhD, begun the year she and Stephen married, was not completed until 15 years later and then only through desperate juggling of time and multiple duties.

Belatedly, she has created a mini-career for herself as a teacher of languages and developed her voice in choral singing. This story has much to offer in its honest and modest treatment of the battle to live an "ordinary" life in extraordinary circumstances.

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