In a raw autobiographical account of her life married to the world renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, Travelling to Infinity provides an insight into the mechanics behind the genius. Despite giving lengthy descriptions of events that at times feel unimportant, Hawking portrays an inspirational tale of love, compassion and commitment with an undeniable charm.
Hawking’s life can in no way be considered easy. From Stephen’s illness to the pair’s financial troubles to their inability to gain substantive NHS support, the couple’s troubles ranged all aspects of life. While Hawking’s blossoming friendship with her choir-master Jonathon is initially a source of guilt for her (with her loyalty to Stephen and her Christianity being torn for her feelings for Jonathon), she stands firmly by Stephen’s side. Although Hawking’s friendship with Jonathon initially gained disapproval from Stephen’s family, it is clear that Jonathon had no intentions of breaking up the Hawking’s family unit; he remained a close friend to Jane and acted as a carer for Stephen. Jane and Jonathon’s eventual marriage in 1997 after Stephen leaves her for his nurse Elaine Mason appears a natural conclusion for the support Jonathon gave to the family, and Jane, for over 15 years.
Despite the initial assertions that Stephen only had “two years to live”, both Jane and Stephen defy all expectations and go on to have a relationship that spanned over three decades. However, while Stephen’s physical health decreases, his intellectual genius soars. It is clear that it is not only the physical strain of Stephen’s disability that took a toll on the relationship, but his increasing commitment to physics, too. While Hawking humorously describes how “I remembered that Mrs Einstein had cited Physics as the third party in her divorce proceedings”, it is clear Stephen’s commitment of Physics over his family at times was just as emotionally draining on Jane as any physical strains.
Interestingly, it is also through Hawking’s descriptions of Stephen’s commitment to his work that we are given an insight to a surprisingly patriarchal society. In accepting Stephen’s marriage proposal, she describes how “I dismissed all my own previous ambitions, which were now insignificant by comparison with the challenge before me” and readers are left shocked at this pledge to a life of subservience, yet overwhelmed by her profound adoration to a man whom is physical and emotionally dependent on her.
However, despite the length of the book (totalling 487 pages) Hawking, in places, covers little. While she goes into great detail over the immense emotional fatigue she experienced as a result of being not only a mother and a wife but also (especially in the final stages of their relationship) a nurse, she fails to clearly state what her feelings for Stephen or Johnathon were. Was it loyalty that fuelled her committed to Stephen? Was it the societal expectations? Friendship? Love? Hawking briefly alludes to all of these yet never directly addresses the issue, meaning readers are left frustrated at her refusal to disclose the fuel behind her devotion. This means, at times, the book feels more like a family to-do list, describing trip abroad after trip abroad after conference after scientific discovery, rather than cover the emotional insight into a relationship torn apart by the pressures of disease. What is missing is personal intimacy: in attempting to cover so much, Hawking fails to discuss the unique nuances of their relationship. Love is a unique experience to every couple, and Hawking’s descriptions that she fell for his ‘charm’ feel inadequate in explaining a relationship that lasted for over 25 years.
Although Hawking’s descriptions may be lengthy, they highlight how her ability to not only look after Stephen – but also raise three children, complete a PhD in medieval poetry, teach A Level French and help her emotional interest Jonathon run his music ensemble – is just as inspiring as Stephen’s ability to overcome his disability. Hawking appears to live the lives of a hundred people in only one lifetime, and her continual determination is inspiring and even poetic – her ability to cope with turmoil after turmoil is of godly strength.
Readers who have come to the film from the recent bioepic ‘The Theory of Everything’ will be disappointed to see that the reality of life in the Hawking-household was more mundane than the film presents it as – living with any form of disease and world-famous genius is going to have its difficulties. Despite this, however, the book is still filled with a remarkable charm and Hawking’s pleasant character is refreshing, meaning while the book is drawn out Hawking’s opinions about the world around her are still welcomed. A book that would be best read relaxing on a beach on holiday to give it the full attention it deserves, Travelling to Infinity is an inspiring insight into what it meant to be a housewife, a mother and a genius in the 20th century.
Words by Juliette Rowsell