Cork's heroine of communist literature


The name Ethel Voynich might not be as famous as some of her peers, but her landmark novel ‘The Gadfly’ sold millions of copies around the world

SUMMER IS AN appropriate time for bestsellers. Seductive weather, the cult of holidaying and a multitude of book festivals collude to promote escapism. The commercial lure of popular fiction works on us, but we often neglect the old books which were once biggest on the market.

Obvious ones such as Ulyssesstill thrive this time of year, as they should. But this June’s Bloomsday festivities left me somewhat hollow, like after Christmas. Weary of the endless repetition of quotes and cliches from that branded work, I resolved to find something forgotten and ignominious. Thus, I came upon a female Joyce in the Cork-born radical author, Ethel Voynich.

It is likely that this week the 50th anniversary of Voynich’s death is being celebrated in some Russian hinterland. She is a fading figure in history, whose bestselling novel The Gadfly(1897) is missing from Irish shelves. To classify her as the female Joyce might be considered a ruse, as there is no comparison between the two authors’ oeuvres. But in light of Voynich’s extraordinary life, and the quantity of copies her novel sold – 2.5 million in Russia alone – she squares up impressively.

Her lineage almost predetermined her success. She was born in 1864 at Ballintemple, Cork, to brilliant parents. Her father was the mathematician George Boole, the inventor of Boolean logic, which underpins computer language. Her mother Mary Everest was a psychologist and mathematician, and niece of George Everest, after whom the largest peak in the world is named.

Voynich had a bungled childhood, her father dying suddenly when she was a baby, her mother becoming estranged. She and her four sisters were carted to England to live with an abusive uncle, among other traumas. By age 15, the melancholic girl dressed only in black, in mourning for the condition of the world.

At 18 she studied music in Berlin and moved to London. There, she moved in circles with Engels, Eleanor Marx, Shaw, Wilde and Yeats. She became a Marxist, Russophile, translator, musician and social worker. In 1891 she married Polish revolutionary Wilfred Voynich, but clung to her independence, travelling to Russia and on an intrepid journey to the Ukraine to disseminate contraband books.

Through this jagged lifestyle she garnered material for her magnum opus. She wrote The Gadflyin Italy while on a sojourn with Sidney Reilly, a British secret agent also known as the “ace of spies”, and hero of 1983 the BBC television mini-series of the same name. Reilly had a catalogue of passports and a woman for each one, which suggests that for him the affair meant less romance than extreme vocational diligence.

Voynich’s letters from Rome do not convey the sort of passion we imagine she courted with Reilly. She complains of the monotony of being caged in the archives during the hot summer months, and her exhaustion from writing. She had no idea of the scale of appeal the novel was to generate, but it became the stuff of blockbusters. Set in the 1840s in Austria-dominated Italy, it champions revolutionary idealism, revolt and martyrdom. It tells the story of the Gadfly, a swashbuckling rogue and enfant terribleof left-wing journalism in Florence – lame, scarred and disfigured from a life of battery and self-sacrifice.

Like its eponymous hero, The Gadflygrew wings across continents. It was translated into 20 languages and adapted into an opera in 1928, a film in 1955 (with a score by Shostakovich), and theatre (unofficially) by Shaw. Its popularity stemmed from its lurid execution scene, political intrigue and love story. But the details are unimportant. It’s remembered not for its artistic worth but as a piece of ideology. In this sense it’s worth gritting one’s teeth to read, if only for a lesson in the contorted history of ideas.

The Gadflybecame a communist zeitgeist, decried as “scandalous” and “horrifying” elsewhere. In China in the 1950-1960s it was fashionable under Mao’s cultural dictatorship. In Russia its fame predates the horrors of Stalinism, yet in the early 1900s Ovod, as it was known, was distributed to peasants for compulsory reading. It was a precursor to the sober, state-sanctioned genre of “socialist realism” in the 1930s, when literature became entirely didactic, pared to the simplest allegories of revolution.

It circulated in Ireland during the Civil War, after Kevin O’Higgins’s abortive Public Safety Bill. Marxist republican Peadar O’Donnell mentions it in his cabalistic accounts of the “C” wing of Mountjoy Prison. He discusses the solace it afforded his comrade prisoners during the “cigarette famine” in Mountjoy. The book was bedtime reading for IRA man Joe McKelvey, who placed it beside him for the last time on the night before his execution on December 8th, 1922.

Only in her 90th year was Voynich discovered by Soviet authorities, and duly feted for The Gadfly. The book has not withstood the test of time – it is neither read now nor overly worth reading. But Voynich’s tumultuously eclectic life, ending in cosmopolitan New York in 1960, age 96, is a minefield for remembrance.