An Irishman's Diary

Thu, Dec 13, 2012, 00:00

The Cork-born writer Ethel Voynich, mentioned elsewhere on this page recently (Letters, December 8th), remains largely uncelebrated in Ireland. Which is in some ways understandable: she left home early and achieved her greatest fame in Russia. But if anyone ever decides to organise a summer school, her life would supply enough material to keep students busy for decades.

It would have to be a summer school – she was born in May and died in July. Almost a century elapsed between those events, however. And although that period held more than enough for any biography, celebrity had also predated her.

Voynich had a lot to live up to, in that her mother was an Everest, literally: a niece of the Welsh geographer for whom the mountain was renamed. Then there was the writer’s father, George Boole, of Boolean logic fame: an Englishman whose professorship of mathematics in Cork decided where Ethel Lilian Boole, as she was christened, would first see light of day.

She was born in 1864, a turbulent time in Ireland. But it was revolution in Italy that provided the pivotal event in Ethel Boole’s younger life. Aged 15, she read a book about Giuseppe Mazzini and it inflamed her imagination. For long afterwards she wore only black, in mourning for a world unfree.

A few years later, in Berlin, she read another revolutionary work, this time about Russia. And deciding to visit that country, she took Russian lessons in London from the author, a man known as Stepniak, whose CV included having assassinated the head of the tsar’s secret police.

By the 1890s, still in London, Boole was mixing with a set that included Oscar Wilde, GB Shaw, and Frederick Engels. It was in London too she met her husband, a Polish nationalist who had escaped imprisonment in Siberia. Amid this milieu in 1893, she wrote her first novel, the book on which her personal fame still rests.

The Gadfly is set in 19th-century Italy. But its larger themes, including anti-clericalism, were to make it a favourite of the Bolsheviks and, after 1917, required reading in Soviet schools. In the meantime, despite its controversial views, it also won rave reviews in the West.

Bertrand Russell called it “the most exciting novel” he had read. DH Lawrence was a fan too. And Shaw was so enamoured that, fearing somebody else would appropriate the title for a stage-play, he dramatised it himself to protect Voynich’s copyright, while dismissing his version as “quite unworthy of its original”.

An inconvenient truth for its Russian readership, but even more material for scholars, is that Voynich is believed to have researched the novel in Italy while in the company of – and having an affair with – one Salomon Rosenblum.

Rosenblum is better known to posterity as Sidney Reilly, or “Reilly Ace of Spies”, who would later attempt to assassinate Lenin and was himself executed by the Soviets in 1925.

Even Voynich’s husband is material for literary detectives. His politics aside, he won international renown as a book dealer, in the process lending his name to a famously mysterious document from the middle ages.

The “Voynich Manuscript” has baffled scholars since its rediscovery in 1912. Written in an unknown script and containing illustrations of things also unknown, it defies all attempts at code-breaking or explanation. Indeed, one recent theory is that it was meaningless to begin with: a mystery deliberately created by 15th-century authors.

In any case, that too forms an incidental chapter in Ethel Voynich’s extraordinary career. Which admittedly peaked early, because although she wrote several other books and musical works, including a cantata dedicated to Roger Casement, she never repeated the success of The Gadfly, geographically limited as that was.

By the time of her death, the book had sold two and a half million copies in the USSR, where its reputation rivalled Dickens and Mark Twain. Yet perhaps the most remarkable thing is that at the time of its greatest fame, Voynich – by then living in New York – was blissfully unaware.

She had not heard of any Russian edition published after 1913. Nor did the Soviets who lionised her know she was still alive. When this was discovered in 1950, it made headlines in Moscow.

In subsequent years, her Manhattan apartment received a series of visits – and belated royalties – from Russia. Pathé newsreel records one such occasion in 1959, when representatives of the Bolshoi Theatre brought flowers and treated her like communist royalty. Then 95, Voynich still looks sprightly and alert, although her time was running out. She died a year later, in 1960, after a life you just couldn’t make up.

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