Finally, the 5th in my 52 Books Challenge is up! This has been a while coming! I started reading this book last month, and unfortunately it has taken a while. I’m usually a fast reader, so it’s a bit embarrassing that it’s taken me so long to plough through. I blame 400+ pages, very small writing, and actually having to concentrate on the book (unlike some of my previous reads, which were rather fluffy and easy-going).
So at the end of January, having badgered Ben to go with me, we went to see The Theory of Everything. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones were both amazing, and the film is wonderful. Leaving the cinema at the end, I could certainly see the hype surrounding the ultra-successful film franchise. But it also made me curious to learn more about the people involved – Jane and Stephen Hawking. So when I found this as part of the Buy One, Get One Half Price in Waterstones, I was swayed. Biography is not something I usually read, but I’m so glad I made an exception. Jane Hawking is a wonderful writer, and that alone makes the story interesting.
Jane Hawking has an epic of a story to tell about her life with one of the most famous men in the scientific world. She spans about forty odd years in doing so, from their now infamous meeting at a party in Cambridge as students, to the end of their marriage in the early 90s. For anyone who may not know their story, Jane and Stephen met as young students, and shortly into their relationship, Stephen was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. He was twenty one years old, and he was told he could only expect to live about two years more. There was very little knowledge of MND in the 1960s, when he was diagnosed, and virtually nothing in the way of a support service for sufferers. It was a complete game changer in both their lives, and left Jane Hawking with one hell of a decision to make. If she were to stay with Stephen, she would be committing herself to eventual widowhood, to life looking after an invalid. She would be forsaking any ideas she had of commitment to a career in the Foreign Office, the culmination of her linguistic talents in Spanish and French. But this is exactly what she did, relinquishing her own dreams in order to stand in the shadows. She would, from now on, be the woman behind the man, and not a woman in her own right.
It is difficult to find the right way to critique an autobiography correctly. You cannot criticise a plot as too weak or fanciful, as it is essentially the story of someone’s life, and must be regarded as the truth. Therefore you can only examine the characters exposed to you, and the choices they make. Of course, you have to take into account the fact that your view of other characters will be influenced by the author’s view of them. But nonetheless, here are my views.
I very much liked and respected Jane Hawking. A highly intelligent woman in her own right, she comes across as loving and dedicated to her family, and gave up a great deal of herself to care for them. She campaigned vociferously for better rights for those with disabilities, and repeatedly encountered all forms of prejudice and hardship from ignorant corners. I was willing her to claw back some independence and pursue her studies, to keep fighting for her marriage and for a balanced upbringing for her children.
Stephen Hawking himself, as with many highly intelligent people, is rather lacking in other areas. I don’t make any reference here to his illness, more to his personality. He is bullish and stubborn, he is single-minded in his pursuit of science, and he repeatedly overlooks Jane in his consideration of her thoughts and wishes, or the acknowledgement of her assistance in his life. Of course, he is a brilliant man and clearly a devoted father, but it becomes evident throughout the novel that the idealism he and Jane shared in the heady early days of their relationship is lost amidst the banalities of caring for his condition and holding together a home.
As you may know, both Jane and Stephen remarried after their divorce, she to their family friend Jonathan Hellyer Jones, and he to one of his nurses, Elaine Mason. Both these relationships are touched upon in the book, and unsurprisingly, Jane Hawking is not especially complimentary of her usurper. At the stage during which Elaine and Stephen’s relationship came into being, Jane and Stephen’s marriage was in fairly dire straits. The constant strain of care over the years and Stephen’s rising star in physics served to drive a wedge between them, and Elaine, as one of the nurses, was there to fill the gap. She was thought to be at the heart of dissension and back-biting among the nurses, and it seems that no one besides Stephen was much of a fan of her. She is not dwelt upon much in the story.
In contrast, Jane’s relationship with Jonathan started out when they met through the choral group at church. She is fairly careful about the way she talks about their relationship, and how it developed. What I understand from the story is that they met, instantly hit it off, and he became an invaluable asset to their family unit. He took on a lot of the responsibility for Stephen’s day-to-day care, and allowed Jane to regain part of herself. It is quite ambiguous as to whether or not they had a physical relationship prior to Jane and Stephen’s separation. In the film it is certainly implied that they do, and I think to a degree the same is true of the book, although never explicitly stated. However, I am not passing judgement. I cannot fathom being in the situation Jane and Stephen find themselves in. Everyone expected Stephen to be dead within two years – for him to still be alive today is remarkable in itself, and it is hardly surprising that the pressures of having to always be the strong one in the marriage must have taken its toll on Jane. But I did like Jonathan, although I marvelled at how he could put himself through such a difficult situation of living so closely with the woman he loved, who was still married and devoted to another man.
One of the interesting conflicts showcased in the book is the clash between science and the church. Jane Hawking was brought up in the Christian faith but, perhaps unsurprisingly considering both his condition and his profession, Stephen was a staunch atheist with no belief in religion. It had no place in science, and therefore no place in his life. Jane, by contrast, finds the church and her faith a great source of comfort throughout her trials.
One of the other things that struck me was Jane’s scathing review of the healthcare services. The NHS, it seems, completely deserted the Hawkings, and only provided support to them grudgingly. Wheelchairs, nursing visits, it was all an uphill struggle, and the impression I get from reading is that Jane and Stephen essentially pioneered MND support systems in their own way over time. It is appalling to look back and think that they were so reluctant to offer help, whereas today there are so many provisions available for persons with disabilities.
So, my thoughts overall? I really enjoyed this book. It’ll take you a while but persevere. It is fascinating to read an account of half of the twentieth century through the eyes of an ordinary, yet extraordinary family. Due to reading such a long account you really feel invested in the family and their lives, and even though you know that, ultimately, Jane and Stephen couldn’t make their marriage work, you do find yourself wishing that they could have kept hold of the heady romantic idealism that Motor Neurone Disease and Physics stripped from them.