Remembering Ethel Voynich – People’s World
Liam Mellows read this novel while awaiting execution, along with the other convicts and his comrades, imprisoned by the Irish Free State during the Civil War (1922-1923), for opposing the treaty which gave the Ireland for dominion status within the British Empire, rather than establishing an independent Irish Republic. Fellow inmate Peadar O’Donnell writes: Horsefly was widely read in the “C” wing; it’s a story of the Italian revolution with a horrible execution scene.… MacKelvey… picking up the Horsefly… Saying once again, ‘My God, I hope they don’t mess with any of our guys that way.’ MacKelvey had to remember the Horsefly The next morning. “
What was this book, so widely read by Republicans in Ireland and the Labor movement in Britain in its day?
This revolutionary novel was published in New York in 1897 and a few months later in London, two years after its completion. It achieved cult status in the USSR and China, selling millions of copies. Two film versions were made in the USSR, one silent (1928), the other (1955) with a score by Dmitri Shostakovich. Its author, Ethel Voynich, of Irish origin, was closely associated with the revolutionary circles of London, Berlin and Russia.
Ethel Lilian Boole was born on May 11, 1864, in County Cork, the youngest of five daughters of famous mathematician professor George Boole and Mary Boole, psychologist and philosopher. Ethel’s father died shortly after birth and her mother took the family to London, returning regularly to Ireland as a child. It was during one of these visits to Ireland that she heard for the first time about Giuseppe Mazzini, leader of the Italian Risorgimento movement.
At the age of 18, she went to study music in Berlin for three years (1882-1885). There she met Russian revolutionaries and, on her return to London, she learned Russian from the exiled revolutionary Stepniak (Sergei Kravchinsky), who had fled Russia after assassinating the chief of the Tsarist secret police. She later traveled to Russia, staying with Stepniak’s sister-in-law Preskovia Karauloff in St. Petersburg for two years (1887-1889). Preskovia was a doctor, whose husband was a political prisoner. Ethel helped Preskovia care for the impoverished peasants. She also gave music lessons and associated with families of political prisoners whom she met via Preskovia.
Back in London, Ethel met a Polish political exile, recently escaped from Siberia (Poland was then part of the Russian Empire), who anglicized his name as Wilfred Michael Voynich. Transported to Siberia to participate in the Polish liberation movement against the Tsarist regime, he fled to England in 1890. Ethel and Wilfred worked with Stepniak to print revolutionary literature and to ban books and bring them into Russia, including including translations of the writings of Marx and Engels. Along with other revolutionaries, they founded the Russian Free Press Fund. Ethel herself undertook an underground trip to Lvov in Ukraine to organize the smuggling of illegal publications into Russia. Involved in these circles of Russian emigrants was another Russian exile and agent, Sigmund Rosenblum, alias Sidney Reilly, executed in 1925 for his role in a coup against Lenin and the USSR. The legend is attached to Ethel and “Sidney” having an affair in Italy.
From these experiences and from this circle of comrades, Voynich has drawn the stuff from which the novel is made. It takes place in 1840s Italy at the time of its popular rebellion against Austrian rule, the Risorgimento.
The main characters of the novel belong to Mazzini’s underground party, Young Italy, active in the national liberation movement. An exciting plot roots the sympathy of readers with that of the author. We understand how this book captured the imagination of readers who sympathized with the movements against oppression and domination. “Several of them belonged to the Mazzinian party and would have been content with nothing less than a democratic republic and a united Italy. It is evident that the anti-treaty prisoners, captured during the Civil War in Ireland, identified with the characters in the book.
This domination was not only exercised by a foreign power. Reflecting a historical fact, the novel strongly criticizes the active opposition of the Catholic Church to the movement for a united Italy, expressed in a father-son conflict which deepens its importance: an Italian reluctantly ready to sacrifice his son and cause of freedom, and the future of Italy, in the name of religion. The author leaves no doubt about his own position. In fact, the novel’s stated atheism must have contributed to its ban by the Irish state in 1947.
The spirit of revolution is not limited to members of the Young Italy movement. He enjoys secret support from the entire population, as evidenced by many scenes in the novel. Ordinary people help the movement move guns across borders, come to their aid personally, even prison guards support them. In fact, in the scene mentioned by MacKelvey, the firing squad is trying to protect their secret hero. Thus, at the end of the 19th century, we see a new type evolve within the English novel, whose hero and heroine are revolutionaries and are part of a revolutionary liberation movement.
Written at a time of international suffrage movements, central female character Gemma Warren is a woman the movement respects highly. She draws inspiration not only from Voynich’s own experience but also from other revolutionary women around the author. Gemma is not just an emancipated woman; she is also a revolutionary woman, at the center of the movement. In this way, she goes beyond the literary heroines of the late 19th century and anticipates the proletarian women that Gorky would write about. “Those who saw her only in her political work saw her as a trained and disciplined, trustworthy, courageous conspirator, in all respects a valued member of the party, but somehow lacking in life and of individuality. “She’s a born conspirator, worth any dozen of us; and she is nothing more, Galli had said of her. Voynich not only brings the revolutionary group to the center of the novel’s plot but, as a necessary part of that group, a new type of woman.
Given Voynich’s internationalism and experience, it is disconcerting to find any racist feelings towards South Americans and Blacks expressed in this book. This racism also affects the representation of women of color, as readers will discover. It seems Voynich’s novel did not find much resonance in Cuba and other Latin American countries, nor in Africa, all of whom are waging heroic liberation struggles. Surprisingly, reviews haven’t drawn attention to this aspect. Instead, if they don’t like him, it’s because of his unashamed atheism, so unusual for his time, or his dedication to a revolutionary movement.
Before the outbreak of World War I, Wilfred Voynich was involved in the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom. He ran a rare bookstore in Soho, which he also used for money laundering and smuggling revolutionary Marxist literature into Russia. Again, Ethel often worked as a courier for the organization.
Wilfred’s greatest fame is linked to a Renaissance manuscript he discovered in 1912. He later brought it with him to New York City, where he moved in 1915 and continued in the book business. . The document which has come to be known as the “Voynich Manuscript” was written in code which to this day has not been deciphered. Much mystery surrounds this script; one possibility is that it was an elaborate hoax, made by Voynich, who held a degree in chemistry.
Ethel began writing full time, writing three more novels: Jacques Raymond (1901), Olive latham (1904), and An interrupted friendship (1910). She also translated into English poems by Shevchenko and Lermontov, published in 1911.
She worked with the Quakers as a social worker in the East End of London during World War I and left Britain for good around 1920 when she joined Wilfred in New York. There is no further information on active political work. Wilfred died in 1930. Ethel returned to music, composed musical works including “Epitaph in Ballad Form”, dedicated to the Irish revolutionary Roger Casement, who was hanged in Pentonville prison, London, on August 3, 1916. She also translated the composer Frederic The Letters of Chopin in English. None of his later novels reached the quality or fame of The gadfly.
Soviet scholars discovered in 1955 that Ethel was still alive in New York at the age of 91. This caused a sensation in the USSR and led to the payment of royalties. Ethel continued to live quietly with her partner, Anne Nill, who had once run Wilfred’s New York book business. They lived together for thirty years in the heart of Manhattan, in an apartment in London Terrace on West 24th Street. Ethel Voynich died 60 years ago, on July 27, 1960, at the age of 96.