Travelling to Infinity: My life with Stephen by Jane Hawking

Travelling to infinityWhile at the library recently I picked up Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Hawking. I often borrow books from the library that I might not otherwise read and this is one of them.

Synopsis: This is the biography/memoir of Jane Hawking, wife for 25 years of Stephen Hawking the famed physicist. It traces not only their lives but that of their families as well as his remarkable scientific discoveries and the impact of his degenerative illness, motor neuron disease, on himself, his wife, family and colleagues.

 My thoughts:

I was intrigued by this story and astonished that a woman as young as Jane married and took on the responsibilities associated with a brilliant but increasingly ill man. The rigours of their lives and the physical and emotional hardships were perhaps made more difficult, rather than less, with a husband who was a scientific genius. Everyday people would have most of the same strains but presumably not the added pressure of a brain which far outstripped anyone else’s. Jane’s persistence and determination and her family’s support are remarkable. The sheer generosity of Stephen Hawking’s students and colleagues is also amazing.

Throughout the story, I was increasingly annoyed with Stephen Hawking’s selfish disregard of his wife’s needs and lack of recognition of her academic ability which is evident throughout the memoir. While not reaching Stephen’s standard of genius, it’s plain that Jane is no slouch intellectually. However she sacrifices a great deal for her husband’s well-being both physically and intellectually. He appears not to have reciprocated her generosity or regard.

While the details of the science, and sometimes her own linguistic endeavours, were often lost on me (or I didn’t bother to try to keep on top of them), the life story was intriguing.

While it could be argued that she has “puffed herself up” this is not how it strikes me, rather the opposite if anything. As the book neared its conclusion I was increasingly irritated with Stephen Hawking’s lack of respect and regard for his wife and her significant contributions to his achievements. His fame seems to reflect this grandiose view of himself, which is perhaps the real reason why he becomes besotted by his nurse. After all, in traditional terms nurses are accustomed to deferring to the supposed greater intellect of the medicos, a phenomenon which is perhaps less common today. And yes, Jane does have a relationship with a “family friend”, initially platonic and later physical, who continues to help the whole family, at great sacrifice to himself. Who could blame her struggling with the depths of despair.

Frankly I wondered why Jane Hawking continued to denigrate her own abilities and remain in the marriage. Stephen Hawking’s elitist perspectives were increasingly infuriating to me as he appeared to intimidate, if not bully, his wife and family. As the famed scientist his needs were held to be greater than those of the rest of the family. Personally I agreed with the local minister who assured Jane that irrespective of intelligence or genius, each member of a family has equal rights if not always equal needs.

Magic carpet factor: 3.75 

Aggravation factor (with him!) 4.75


4 thoughts on “Travelling to Infinity: My life with Stephen by Jane Hawking

  1. One book which I won’t be reading… I have seen a couple of interviews with Stephen and Jane Hawking and I was dismayed by his total dismissal of his wife. I have only read a review or two of this book, so maybe I am being unfair. Jane must have more patience than I have… I found his attitude was that of a man who was obsessed by his own intellect, and dismissive of all others, especially his wife. He treated the interviewer as though he was doing him a favour by even speaking to him. High intelligence does not substitute for good manners, appreciation, or as you say, respect. It is very hard to really understand what holds this lady there.
    I would love to read of Jane’s story if she ever walked away from this sad man, something I doubt she would ever do.

    • I can’t recall ever seeing any interviews so I’m pleased my reading coincided with your view. The book is written because she decided someone else would write it if she didn’t. He actually left her for his nurse and they divorced. She later married the man with whom they had a sort of menage a trois, if you can call it that when for quite a while it was platonic, and throughout he did a great deal to help her with the children and also look after Stephen. In reality their household was a menage of many as it was inhabited by so many carers…it would drive me crazy. The clear implication is that without Johnathan’s support she may well have suicided, such was her despair. Stephen Hawking seemed to think he was owed everyone running behind him because he was so much cleverer than they were. My foot stamp factor was about 4.75!

  2. Pingback: Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen | Science Book a Day

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