Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, particularly when it gives us a point of view overlooked by official history. So I was really interested in the premise of The Other Einstein… which tells the story of Albert Einstein’s first wife Mileva Marić, who in 1896 is the only woman studying physics at an elite school in Zürich. She married her charismatic classmate looking forward to a union of equals. A brilliant physicist in her own right, her contributions to the special theory of relativity have been hotly debated for more than a century… but her name has been largely forgotten.
There is always a risk with historical fiction based on real people, and I must emphasise that this is a work of fiction… there is speculation in The Other Einstein. We can never know the full truth of what goes on behind closed doors, and I have no doubt that Mileva Marić collaborated with Einstein to some extent – however I would have preferred if credit was not fully transplanted away from him in the way this book does. Despite this caveat there is a lot to enjoy in The Other Einstein. The research into the time period is woven lightly into the narrative, and the sense of time and place is skillfully evoked. Mileva is a wonderful character, and her struggle to reconcile her ambition and societal expectation for her gender is one that resonates. In a world where women are still under represented in STEM this book is well worth reading.
As part of the blog tour for The Other Einstein, author Marie Benedict answered some of my questions about the process of writing the book:
Marie, welcome to Eats Plants, Reads Books! Tell me, what is the best thing about being a writer? As a child, I always dreamed of stepping through a time machine and entering another era, and writing historical fiction is the closest I’ll probably ever get to stepping back into the past! I adore this aspect of my work, and I suppose that’s why I’m so drawn to being an author of historical fiction.
How much time did you spend researching the book? Can you tell me a bit about your process? Research is my favourite part of writing historically-focused fiction, and I adore lingering in the historical research of many time periods. That said, when I am engaging in the fact-finding necessary to tell a particular tale, I usually spend six to eight months researching, and The Other Einstein is no exception. I generally like to uncover and rely on original source material — like the letters between Mileva and Albert — when writing a story, although I will delve into reliable secondary materials when original source material is scant.
Have you always been interested in science or was this a new subject for you? I almost did not write The Other Einstein because of the heavy scientific component of the story’s backdrop! History has always been my passion, not science. Yet once I immersed myself in the science of the time and began to view science through Mileva’s eyes — science and religion were intertwined for her — I gained a new perspective and started to really enjoy it.
Mileva is a wonderful character — how much of her voice is from historical documents and how much did you have to invent? Thank you for enjoying Mileva as much as I have! She was a tremendous character with which to spend a considerable amount of time. In writing The Other Einstein from Mileva’s perspective, I really relied on her letters to Albert, friends, and family to get a sense of her voice and thoughts and fashion a character akin to the real-life Mileva. The Other Einstein, however, is a work of fiction and so is Mileva, as we can never deeply know a person from the past.
Albert is such an iconic figure — was it a daunting to fictionalize him? Did you ever consider writing from his point of view? Absolutely, the iconic status of Albert Einstein was a hurdle I had to surmount in writing The Other Einstein, which necessarily required fictionalizing him during certain key years of his life. I had to remind myself that I was writing Mileva’s story, not his – as his life has been recounted over and over – when I found myself intimidated by including him in a scene. And to remember that hers was a story that needed to be told.
Given that Mileva overcame so many obstacles in life — her ethnicity, her limp, her gender — she must certainly have been strong and determined. What does it say about the institution of marriage that a woman such as Mileva ‘dwindled’ into a wife? I think it was less that the institution of marriage “dwindled” Mileva — as you so interestingly described it — and more that certain of her personality characteristics led to her susceptibility to diminishing herself and her abilities. While it must have been true that Mileva was tenacious to surmount the many obstacles in her life, her unusual academic gifts, physical challenges, ethnicity and gender meant that she was ostracized from friendships and romantic interests until her university years. Consequently, she arrived at university emotionally quite naive, which led her to tolerance of negative behaviours on Albert’s part, behaviours that contributed to the demise of their marriage and Mileva’s marginalization from science.
Why do you think that Albert tries to suppress the very aspects of Mileva that drew him to her? Why do you think it was important to him that his new wife knew nothing about physics? I do not think that Albert Einstein specifically sought out a second wife who was unfamiliar with physics, but I do think that, in straying from his first marriage with his first cousin and ultimately marrying her, he selected someone who was not particularly challenging from an emotional or intellectual perspective. He chose someone who was very familiar with his habits and ways, and would allow him to pursue whatever course he chose, to which, I suspect, Mileva objected.
Albert Einstein is not the only famous figure in the book — what was it like writing about Marie Curie? Would you consider writing a book about her? Did you consciously include the Curies as a reminder to readers that it is possible to have two equal partners in a marriage if the will is there? Marie Curie was nearly as much an obstacle to writing The Other Einstein as Albert Einstein. She is an iconic figure herself, and has become such a symbol for the potential for women in the sciences. You are correct in surmising that I included Marie Curie in the book not only because she knew and interacted with Mileva and Albert, but also because Marie’s relationship with her husband was a foil for the relationship of Mileva and Albert. I also imagined that Mileva must have admired Marie Curie’s successes — both in the sciences and in her marriage.
Was it hard to let go of these characters, and do you think you would return to them again? What are you currently working on? I do not feel as though I’ve let go of Mileva. As I talk with people about The Other Einstein and people read the book, I feel as though I am sharing her story with others, an objective about which I feel very strongly. In my upcoming novels, I will continue to write narratively connected novels about untold stories of historical women, whose lives contain issues that women currently face. I have just finished an initial draft of Carnegie’s Maid, which shares the story of the lady’s maid of Andrew Carnegie’s mother and the part she played in transforming the ruthless businessman into the world’s first philanthropist, a role that impacts our lives today.
The Other Einstein is available now online and in all good bookshops.