This week, I finally got to see The Theory of Everything. As ever, I will say that I am no way qualified to comment in professional manner on the film and this blog is not a critique of film or television. However, I did greatly enjoy the film and Eddie Redmayne's Oscar for portraying Professor Stephen Hawking was thoroughly deserved. I did feel, though, that Felicity Jones as his first wife Jane Wilde Hawking was outstanding. Maybe the subtleties of her performance have been overshadowed, in the media at least, by Redmayne's very physical transformation.
Particularly interesting in the context of the story as well. Because the story is based on Jane Hawking's own memoir of living with Stephen Hawking as he deteriorated. She must have felt constantly overshadowed, unnoticed. That struggle is really the basis of the film.
Looking at the horrendous physical changes wrought in Hawking by Motor Neurone Disease, it did make me think about how lightly we take the definitions that we come across on our ancestors' death records. You become slightly immune to the "reasons for death" unless something really unusual like a gunshot wound or a rail accident or "plague" (I have seen this on one of my Indian relations' certificates!) shows up.
In reality, nearly every one of those "reasons" has a story of struggle and obviously sadness behind it. Whether it be years of nursing someone with "Consumption" (TB) or dealing with the all too common effects of alcoholism - often hidden to us on certificates because of old fashioned names for it.
If we are truly to understand our ancestors' lives rather than just make a note of their birth and death dates on a diagram, it is important to look at these details. We are unlikely to have access to a memoir like Jane Hawking's to bring such situations into sharp relief but just finding out what a "reason" actually meant can add a great deal to our feel for family history.
As a postscript though, I must say that three of us went to see the film and we all three agreed that Stephen Hawking would not have been an easy person to live with - even if he had kept his health! He is a highly unusual personality to say the least. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) that level of observation and detail about our ancestors will always elude the average family historian!