The First Mrs. Einstein

The Love Letters
Edited by Jurgen Renn and Robert Schulmann
Translated by Shawn Smith
Princeton University Press, 107 pp.

Behind every Great Man, it seems, stands a woman whom history has all but forgotten. So, too, with Albert Einstein and Mileva Maric.

While the details of Einstein’s youth have been meticulously exhumed, almost nothing is known about his first wife. No one thought to track her down later in life, to commit her reminiscences to paper, to compare her version of events with his. She has remained largely a shadow figure, a footnote to the life of the genius.

This slim volume goes some way toward repairing that lack, but not far. It is a collection of the surviving correspondence between Albert and Mileva over the period of their courtship, 54 letters in all, from 1897, when they were students together at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, to 1903, the year of their marriage. It adds little in the way of hard facts to the historical record, but the light it sheds on their relationship is both sad and touching.

Historians of science no doubt hoped for more. When the letters, which had been bequeathed to their son Hans Albert in 1948, came to light in the late 1980s, they caused considerable excitement.

In one miraculous year, 1905, Einstein published three papers (on light quanta, Brownian motion and special relativity) that revised wholesale the very foundations of contemporary physics. And yet the genesis of these revolutionary insights remained obscure, since no early drafts of the papers survived. Perhaps, it was thought, these early letters to his most intimate confidante might illuminate the origins of his achievements.

In fact, they do not, or not much. While the correspondence records Einstein’s bubbling enthusiasm for both his lover and his work, shifting endearingly from declarations of affection (“My dear kitten . . . I kiss you and hug you with all my heart”) to his intellectual preoccupations (“On the question of specific heat, which at the same time concerns the relationship between temperature and radiation process. . . .”), it is really as a portrait of a union that the letters are most revealing.

This much at least is known about Maric: of Serbian origin, she was the daughter of a Hungarian bureaucrat and the only female student in her class at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic.

It’s clear that Einstein admired her intellectual ambitions. He saw himself as a progressive, a man whose wife would be his equal in every respect, and not simply a bourgeois adornment. His parents, by contrast, saw Maric as his social inferior, and his mother, given to histrionics, would wail that he was endangering any opportunity for advancement.

Einstein and Maric stood firm in their devotion, but the result was far from a happy ending. By 1901, she was pregnant out of wedlock and had failed her second attempt to obtain her teaching certificate. The rigid social mores of the day demanded that the daughter, Lieserl, be given up for adoption. It isn’t known what became of her, and neither Einstein nor Maric mention her again in any of their correspondence.

Indeed, for all of Einstein’s progressive posturing, he emerges through his letters as a fairly typical young, male doctoral candidate. Self-possessed and self-absorbed, he thinks his parents vain and shallow. He finds his academic supervisors obstructionist and thick-witted, except when they compliment him. He desperately desires an academic post and rails at the world when position after position eludes him.

Even in his relationship with Maric, he is what he denies. He claims to want an intellectual equal, but in practice it’s she who makes his lunch, while he sits at the table prattling on about his obsessions. The letters are full of news about his studies, but not a single inquiry about how her work is going. In the end, it’s she who must bear a child in shame and watch her teaching aspirations evaporate, while he dedicates his dissertation to his pal, Marcel Grossmann. Even the record of the correspondence speaks of the inequity in the relationship: of 54 letters, only 11 are from Maric to Einstein. While she kept his letters dutifully, he lost or discarded most of hers.

It is impossible, therefore, not to read these letters ruefully. These were two young people who thought they were forging a modern marriage and a perfect future. By 1919 they had divorced in acrimony. Plus ça change. eg

  • Globe and Mail  June 20, 1992.