When Jane Hawking watched the television footage of her former husband
floating in the air, she was transported back to a time when he could move
freely. Here, for a brief moment, was her Stephen of old, out of his
wheelchair, just as he was when she met him more than 40 years ago. “It all
seemed like a miracle,” she says. “He was defying gravity.” Tears pricked
She need hardly add that Professor Hawking, the world’s most celebrated
cosmologist, who suffers from motor neurone disease, has also been defying
time. At 65, he is one of the longest survivors of the incurable
degenerative illness that doctors predicted would kill him in his twenties.
It was so brave of him, she says, to soar to 32,000ft in an adapted Boeing
727-700 to experience weightlessness: “It’s not for nothing they call it the
vomit comet. But it all passed off without incident and I could see from his
expression how happy he was.”
Hawking’s own verdict, delivered through his computerised voice synthesiser to
reporters as he landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center, was: “Amazing. I
could have gone on and on. Space, here I come.”
In honour of his safe return, the family will be meeting today for a
celebration lunch at his specially adapted house on a modern estate in
Cambridge where he is looked after round the clock by nurses. Jane, 62, who
lives five minutes’ drive away, will be accompanied by her second husband,
Jonathan Hellyer Jones, the musician she married in 1995 after her very
painful and public divorce from Stephen.
Lucy, their 36-year-old daughter, will also be there with their nine-year-old
grandson William. Like the space flight, this family gathering is yet
another miracle in what has been a year of unexpected reconciliation for
Jane, a true annus mirabilis.
“Stephen is free,” she says, throwing up her hands in joy.
“We are associating again and it is so gratifying.” After more than a decade
in which he all but stopped communicating with his first wife and children,
he is reconnecting with them. She goes to see him regularly at his office at
Cambridge University, where he is Lucasian professor of mathematics, a post
once held by Isaac Newton.
The author and physicist is often held up as the apotheosis of a brilliant
mind in a broken body. His study of the universe, A Brief History of Time,
has sold 25m copies since it appeared in 1988 and has been translated into
more than 40 languages.
After the divorce, Stephen went on to marry one of his nurses, Elaine Mason,
in 1995. Jane and their three children, Robert, Lucy and Tim, soon found
themselves frozen out. When they tried to see him, obstacles were put in
their way. The marriage ended last summer, after years of suspicion and
rumour, although none of it proven, that Mason was maltreating him.
Some of his nurses alleged that he had suffered cuts and bruises and that he
had been left out in the sun in his wheelchair on the hottest day of the
year. A frequent visitor to the accident and emergency department of
Adden-brooke’s hospital in Cambridge, he sustained at various times a broken
arm, wrist, black eyes and a gash across his face. Police became suspicious
but dropped charges after Hawking’s refusal to make any complaint.
Jane does not speak about Mason, nor will she ever: “Stephen is free to come
and spend Christmas Day with us, free for reunions and to see our
grandchildren. A huge bit of me has been restored. I feel like a patched-up
old ruin. And we have slotted right back in as a family.” Her relief is
palpable: “It means the raison d’être of all that time I spent with him has
not disappeared. I have recaptured those 25 years. We are no longer worried
about him, except for his health which is very fragile.”
Her world is so utterly changed that she has gone back to the autobiography
she wrote in 1999, Music to Move the Stars, with a surgical knife. Out goes
the melodrama about the breakdown of her marriage and in has come what she
hopes is a newfound maturity. A revised version, Travelling to Infinity: My
Life with Stephen (Alma Books), comes out later this month: “My first book
was a great outpouring of emotion, grief, disappointment and despair. Those
feelings were raw and very close to the surface at the time but now, in
2007, I have exorcised a lot of the past.”
Her revelations about caring for and sleeping with the disabled Stephen
sparked controversy. An adoring public did not like its superstar scientist,
whom she dubbed the “all-powerful emperor”, portrayed as an ego-centric
When she told of their sex life, many thought she had gone too far: “I had
reason to fear that the effort involved in sexual activity might kill
Stephen in my arms . . . my side of the experience was so empty that it
constantly left my nerves raw and jangling.” She was vilified. To which she
counters: “How do you make people understand what disability means? If you
don’t tell the truth, it’s a pointless exercise.”
Her new book is kinder, although no less raw. She portrays with compassion a
man who has now lost all movement, save for a few facial muscles. The
other-worldly voice that he controls with the twitch of an eyebrow is his
only means of communication.
To meet her is to understand that she is not playing at happy families,
painting her life with a rose-tinted wash. She has worked at forgiving and
forgetting. When she split from Stephen, she remembers Isobel, her
mother-in-law, telling her: “We never really liked you, Jane, you do not fit
into our family.” Yet she and Isobel are now reconciled. And she finds
silence, not just time, to be the great healer: she and Stephen never talk
of his second marriage. They do not look back in rancour, but look ahead to
a new kind of family structure that neither of them could have contemplated
just a year ago.
“I don’t feel I’m torn between Stephen and Jonathan any more,” she says.
“There is no tension in the air and no sense of competition now. When you
get older, love doesn’t have to be exclusive. It’s okay to be fond of
somebody and be married to someone else. One can have a strong friendship
based on shared experience and that does not interfere with my marriage to
She met Stephen when she had just left school and he was a student at
Cambridge. They married in 1965, soon after he was diagnosed with motor
neurone disease: “We never discussed the disease, which was probably a
mistake. I didn’t want to upset him by mentioning it.” They were buoyed by
the euphoria of his survival and the arrival of their children.
As his fame spread, his health deteriorated. Her role changed from wife to
mother. She felt like a mere support system, “crushed under the weight of
his motorised wheelchair” as she once put it. After a bout of pneumonia in
1985 he underwent a tracheotomy that robbed him of speech.
He required 24-hour nursing care, which spelt the end of any intimacy between
them. “We were never alone. One could never be oneself and spies were posted
everywhere. In those days he had fame, fortune, success and nurses
fluttering round him.”
At her lowest point she contemplated suicide. His scientific life was
flourishing but she felt life was ebbing from her. She believed society
viewed her as a cipher beside his brilliant intellect. “I felt what I was
doing was insignificant by comparison. I was there as a drudge,” she says.
To assert her academic identity, she completed a PhD on medieval Spanish
Joining a local choir, she found sexual solace in the arms of Jonathan Hellyer
Jones, its leader, whom she met in 1977. A widower, he soon became a fixture
in their household, with Stephen condoning their love affair.
She has never regretted her marriage to Stephen, a man who is famous for
saying he can think in 11 dimensions. It provided children they both adore.
Does she still love him? “Yes, how could I not? There is something beguiling
about him as ever. It’s the sparkle in his eyes and his sense of humour.
That’s why I fell in love with him in the first place. But the love became buried
under a welter of anxiety, pressures and never-ending demands. We were
fighting against the disease side by side and it’s not what most people do
in their marriages.”
She thinks he still cares for her. “We have resumed our old lives in an
informal, familiar way,” she says. “We watch televi-sion together on Sunday
nights and the nurses leave us together. It’s a privilege to be alone with
Today she will press him for more details about his latest escapade in the air
and his plans to go into space in 2009: “It will be ‘Stephen, whatever
next?’ ” His answer, although tortuously slow in coming, will be worth the
wait. Stephen Hawking may think in 11 dimensions, but his first wife has
learnt to love in several.