The first Irish woman author to sell millions and inspire revolutionaries
Ethel Voynich’s ‘The Gadfly’ influenced rebels and women from Ireland to Russia
Ethel Voynich dressed in black from age 15 until her marriage, in mourning for the state of the world. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons
Ethel Voynich had an unlikely background for a revolutionary heroine, whose first novel earned her fans among both Irish republicans and the British labour movement.
She was born in 1864 in Ballintemple, Co Cork, youngest of five daughters of mathematician George Boole and Mary Everest, an educational psychologist and niece of Sir George Everest, the British surveyor and geographer after whom Mount Everest is named. After the death of Professor Boole, the family moved to England. Reared in the bohemia of her mother’s London home (except for two years with an emotionally abusive uncle), Ethel dressed in black from age 15 until her marriage, in mourning for the state of the world.
She studied music in Berlin with the proceeds of a small inheritance. Having learned Russian in London from an exiled revolutionary, Sergei Kravchinski (alias Stepniak), she travelled in Russia, giving music lessons in St Petersburg, meeting families of political prisoners, and providing medical assistance to the poor.
Back in London she married a Polish exile named Habdank-Woynicz, recently escaped from Siberia; he anglicised his name to Wilfred Voynich. The couple helped Stepniak with his propaganda. In 1894 Ethel Voynich made a dangerous journey alone to the Ukraine to organise smuggling of contraband publications. Encouraged by Stepniak, she published translations from Russian.
In 1896 she had an affair with Sidney Reilly, a British secret service spy said to have 11 passports and a wife to accompany each. They travelled Italy together until he deserted her in Florence.
She drew on both Reilly and her husband for the main character of her first novel, The Gadfly, in 1897. From Reilly came his South American adventures, and from Voynich his prison experiences and nationalism. The heroine, Gemma Warren, was drawn from Charlotte Wilson, mistress of a Russian anarchist.
One later critic described her as “one of the most impressive attempts of the time to present an emancipated woman”.
The Gadfly was an international bestseller. It appealed to revolutionaries of all hues: it was widely read in the British labour movement into the 1920s, and by Irish republicans. Translated into more than 30 languages, it was acclaimed in the USSR as one of the world’s great novels, and adapted for theatre, opera and cinema.
A 1955 Soviet film version with a score by Dmitri Shostakovich won an award at Cannes. Set in 1840s Italy, the book had nothing to do with socialism. Its attraction came from the combination of idealism, intrigue and anti-clericalism with the psychological fascination of the main character.
None of Voynich’s next three novels – Jack Raymond (1901), Olive Latham (1904), and An Interrupted Friendship (1910) approached this success.
During the first World War she undertook social work with the Quakers. Joining her husband in New York in 1920, she devoted herself to music, publishing cantatas and a translation of Chopin’s letters. A final novel, on the early life of the Gadfly heroine, was a critical and popular failure. Wilfred, meanwhile, became a noted antiquarian bookseller. The “Voynich manuscript” – in an undeciphered script which he discovered in a villa near Rome in 1912 – is in Yale University’s rare-book library.
Ethel enjoyed renewed celebrity and royalties late in life, when the discovery of her existence in New York caused feverish excitement in the USSR. She continued to live quietly with her adopted daughter and her husband’s secretary until her death (aged 96) on July 27th, 1960.
The Booles of Ballintemple had more than one famous daughter: mathematician Alicia and chemist Lucy became distinguished in their own fields.
Based on Lawrence William White’s biography of Ethel Voynich (edited for this Extraordinary Emigrants series for Irish Times Abroad by Clare McCarthy) in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.