How much of this is true?

For the second time since I began writing fictional biography, someone said, “But how am I to know what’s true?”  My answer is that the scenes are made up, the dialogue, the emotional movement, but the settings are as real as I can make them, and I don’t tamper with known facts–assuming they are recorded somewhere and that I have found them.  I don’t change dates or rearrange events to my own ends, either.  In the case of SANDWALK, my fictional biography of the Charles Darwin family during the 17 months preceding the publication of Origin, it was relatively straightforward, thanks to Darwin being such a frequent and thorough letter writer,  available online at, and their daughter Henrietta’s editing her mother’s letter collection into two volumes called Emma Darwin: A Century of Family Letters.

In the case of the Einstein book, it’s not so simple.  The letters were written in German, for example, so I’m dependent on translations.  And the executors of his estate were perhaps too conscientious in wanting to preserve Albert’s sainted image and destroyed much that was inconsistent with it.  Consequently, for the period I’m writing about now–August, 1901-November 1901–after Mileva had failed her exams and went home pregnant to Vojvodina (Serbia) to tell her parents and the time she turned up in Stein am Rhein, Switzerland to be near Albert, letters were either never written (unlikely) or were destroyed.   That means it’s up to me to figure out, based on what I can learn about her family and the cultural mores and religious values of Vojvodina in 1901, how that scene might have played with no help from actual accounts.

So, how does that work?  As a novelist, I have to look to the end game.  I know what happened to various family members, ultimately.  I know that Mileva’s father, very successful in terms of worldly goods, owning as many as four farms in various sections of Serbia and two other houses as well, felt he had failed with his children, that they had betrayed him.  I know that Mileva left Serbia to marry Albert after nearly dying, unwed, in childbirth with their first child Lieserl, that Albert never saw the baby, that she disappeared after age 2.  I know that Mileva’s brother was assumed lost in WW I, but then turned up in Russia and became a professor in a university, though his fellow Serbs and family considered his abandonment traitorous.  I know that her sister Zorka became schizophrenic and that she died on a bed of straw surrounded by 43 cats.

So, knowing those things, what can I assume about these people’s characters and their likely responses to Mileva’s news?  Another interesting fact that seems totally out of context is that when Mileva was in residence at Stein am Rhein, Albert sent her two books.  One was a book on hypnotism by Auguste Forel, the most recent director of the Burgholzli Mental Hospital in Zurich.  Since nothing psychological has ever entered their letters before, what might that suggest?  Mileva found the book disgusting, though she’s not very specific on that score.  Perhaps because Forel was into eugenics?  Or is that why he disgusts me?

That’s another problem, of course.  The matter of being revisionist.  I know that Forel’s work was used by Hitler, but it’s 1901 and no one knows that, yet.  It’s got to be kept in mind.

So, therein lie a few of the problems and my manner of addressing them.

Auguste ForelMilos Maric, Mileva’s fatherStein am Rhein

About Nancy Pinard

Professionally-speaking, Nancy Pinard is an author-educator who spends her days writing, teaching, reading, and researching for her writing and teaching. She is the author of two published novels, Shadow Dancing and Butterfly Soup, and numerous short stories. She has taught the craft of fiction writing in many venues including Sinclair Community College, University of Dayton Life-Long Learning Institute, Antioch Writers' Workshop, Mad Anthony Writers' Workshop, and Molasses Pond Writers' Workshop. Personally, her faith is what sustains, inspires, and motivates her to continue to explore meaning through literature. "You are right in demanding that an artist approach his work consciously, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist." — Anton Chekov to Alexei Suvorin, October 27, 1888
This entry was posted in Auguste Forel, Darwin, Einstein, Fictional biography, fictional truth, Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact, historical fiction, Milos Maric, reading, Serbia, Stein am Rhein, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How much of this is true?

  1. Lynne Hugo says:

    I imagine this providing something like a maddening freedom, to know outcomes but having to imagine how the real people got there. (It must be a bit like trying to reconstruct an actual map with the beginnings and ends marked but none of the waypoints. It’s when understanding character and motivation really counts, isn’t it?)

  2. Some points on Mileva’s letters in the period you cite: First, there is absolutely no doubt that were many other letters written by Mileva that have not survived. Second, it is not possible that some were destroyed by the executors of Einstein’s estate, as they did not have them. They were in the possession of the family of Hans Albert Einstein, and discovered by chance as a result of the endeavours of the historian and Einstein specialist Robert Schulmann. (See details of their discovery in Highfield and Carter, pp. 279-281.) Third, the most likely explanation for the missing letters is that they were not kept by Einstein at the time. Quite simply, he was unconcerned about his personal possessions: in one letter, after telling Mileva he had no idea where his pillows were, he wrote: “You know what a dreadful mess my worldly possessions are in – it’s lucky I don’t have much.” (17 December 1901). I would imagine that after they were married Mileva collected together all her letters that Einstein still had in his possession together with those she had received from him, and the batch of letters passed on to Hans Albert after she died.

    I don’t think there is any problem about translations, undertaken by experts: Renn and Schulmann (eds.) *Albert Einstein: The Love Letters*, and in volume 1 of the Albert Einstein Collected Papers (separate German and English language vols.) If there is anything one wants to be absolutely clear about, there are two translations to compare (those in the Collected Papers tend to be more literal), as well as the original German.

    One factual clarification. You write: “…Mileva had failed her exams and went home pregnant to Vojvodina (Serbia) to tell her parents.” Mileva was not pregnant in August 1900 when she went home to her parents’ place after her first failure to obtain a teaching diploma. She became pregnant the following year.

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