An Irishman's Diary
The first Irish-born woman writer to sell copies of her books by the millions, Ethel Lilian Voynich, is largely forgotten today, but her's is a truly extraordinary story.
Her English father, George Boole, was a man of remarkable achievement. He had been appointed professor of mathematics at what was then Queen's College, Cork (now University College Cork) in 1849. It was he who invented Boolean alegbra. In his day, the idea of computers was theoretical, but without his work in creating this algebra, modern computers couldn't work. The life of George Boole and his family has been well chronicled by Desmond MacHale, a present-day academic at UCC, who enjoys a second career as a prolific humorous writer.
Ethel was the fifth daughter of Boole and his wife, Mary Everest, an ardent avant-garde feminist. She was related to the man who discovered Mount Everest.
Ethel was born just six months before her father died, in 1864. After her father's death, the young girl grew up mainly in London.
Her childhood was tough, including spells staying with Boole's brother, Charles, who was manager of a coal mine in Lancashire. But she spent frequent holidays in her native Ireland and in Cornwall.
When she was 18, she came into a small legacy that enabled her to study music. This led to a spell in Berlin, where she first became interested in revolutionary causes in Russia and eastern Europe, an interest that led her to Warsaw. One day, standing outside the Warsaw Citadel, she saw prisoners being paraded. One who caught her eye was a Polish-American count, Wilfred Voynich, who was both a bibliophile and a revolutionary. At one stage, he had been imprisoned in a camp in Siberia.
In 1890, Voynich and Ethel Boole managed to meet after he had been released from prison. The ensuing marriage didn't last long, but the count provided the inspiration for Ethel Voynich's great novel, The Gadfly. After her marriage broke up, Ethel had a passionate affair with a man called Sigmund Rosenblum, a Polish/Russian Jew who was also known as Sidney Reilly, the first super-spy of the 20th century. While Ethel was deeply involved with him, it is often suggested that Rosenblum was interested in her mainly because of her connections with Russian emigrants and their political plottings. However, her great affair did provide some further material for The Gadfly, which came out in 1897, shortly after her liaison with the spy ended.
Published first in New York, then shortly afterwards in London, it was a revolutionary and anti-clerical story set against the background of the Young Italy movement of 1848. Although it was set in various European cities, principally Rome, it was also infused with the culture of Irish Fenianism.
The novel became an instant success, selling many millions of copies and making Ethel Voynich a comparatively wealthy woman. It had an extraordinary vogue in Russia, where it became almost a bible of the revolution. Over five million copies were sold in Russia and a similar number in China. Even today, in those two countries Voynich is still considered a Western writer on a par with Shakespeare and Dickens.
The Gadfly formed the first part of a trilogy, whose final part, written 50 years later, dealt with Ethel's early days in Cornwall. Published in 1945, it attracted little attention. Indeed, none of her other work attracted the public interest or the sales that The Gadfly enjoyed.
Later still, in the USSR, a film of The Gadfly was made and Dmitri Shostakovich was commissioned to write the score, which became known as The Gadfly Suite. A subsequent 1980s TV series, Reilly, Ace of Spies, used the Romance from this suite as its theme tune. It is still very popular today, and is frequently requested on Lyric FM.
Eventually, Ethel moved to New York and spent the rest of her life there.
Her estranged husband, Wilfrid, also moved there in 1914. He became one of the world' s greatest experts on rare books and a leading dealer in them. Ethel rediscovered him in New York in 1920, but they weren't reconciled and he died there a decade later, in 1930.
As for Rosenblum, he went on to play a key role in the failed attempt to overthrow the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Much later, when Ian Fleming started writing the James Bond novels, Rosenblum was the model for Bond.
Ethel devoted the rest of her life to music and to her devoted companion, Anne Nill and her adopted daughter, Winifred. Ethel herself knew little of the success of The Gadfly in Russia and subsequently in the USSR until a Soviet delegation arrived in New York in 1955, determined to find her. Not only did she make a big story for Pravda, which landed a huge scoop, but in an unprecedented step, the USSR paid her $15,000 in royalties.
Ethel Voynich died in New York in 1960 at the grand age of 96. Her life had been as amazing as the story of her most popular book and the current generation of Irish female writers will find it hard to match the publishing success she chalked up over a century ago.