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Ivor Gurney’s Friends

Ethel Voynich — ‘E. L. V.’

Revolutionary, Novelist, Translator, Composer

Pamela Blevins

Ivor Gurney had become aware of Ethel Voynich by the summer of 1913. In August, he reported to Marion Scott that he had ‘actually condescended to read a lady-novelist. Mrs. Voynich.’ He had made his way through her 1910 novel An Interrupted Friendship, which he found ‘without form and void, but not uninteresting...’, to The Gadfly, Voynich’s highly successful 1897 suspense novel. ‘...I read it very carefully up to the capture of Felix, and read the rest in 15 minutes. Why ever did she lose grip in that way? Why did - -? Why did - -? Would - - - -? It is the kind of thing one would write in cold gray dawns after a substantial breakfast of cold beef steak pie and porter,’ he wrote to Scott. ‘But it really does strike me as an awfully fine book, in spite of the characters being non-attractive and a little puzzling.’(1)

At the time he wrote these comments, Gurney might not have been aware of how well Scott knew Ethel Voynich personally or that they had even been collaborators on a theatrical production in Manchester five years earlier.(2) He was soon to learn that Mrs. Voynich, who became one of his valued friends and an intellectual sparring partner, was no ordinary woman.

Throughout her life, she had known many cold gray dawns, danger, fear, deprivation, and uncertainty not unlike that of the characters who peopled her novels. By the time Ivor met Ethel Voynich she was nearly fifty years old, working with her husband Wilfred in his rare book shop in Soho and composing music. Her arduous route to London had taken her from Ireland to Germany, Poland and Russia. Along the way she met adventure and danger. She would count spies, revolutionaries and murderers among her close friends.

Born in County Cork, Ireland on 11 May 1864, Ethel Lilian Boole was the youngest of the five daughters of George Boole (1815-1864), and Mary Everest Boole (1832-1916). George Boole was the eminent mathematician whose theories (Boolean Logic) set the stage for modern technology, including digital recording and the Internet. Mary Boole was a visionary but eccentric woman, a mathematician, teacher and writer whose books on teaching mathematics to children were milestones in education.(3)

Six months after Ethel’s birth, George Boole died unexpectedly at age forty-nine from complications of a respiratory infection. His sister believed that the sometimes impractical Mrs. Boole had hastened his death by foolishly employing a ‘cold-water cure’, recommended by a doctor, that required the ailing man to lie between cold wet sheets. Whatever the cause of his death, the family were soon destitute. Mrs. Boole returned to her native England. In the days before welfare, she had no choice but to send her daughters away to be cared for by various relatives while she attempted to find work, not a promising prospect for a woman in 1865. She was awarded a small Civil List pension of one hundred pounds a year but it was not enough to support herself and five children.

Influential friends rallied and she was appointed librarian at Queen’s College, a women’s college in London. She supplemented her income by advertising herself as a private tutor for girls in arithmetic, algebra, analytical geometry, and differential calculus. Eventually she taught mathematics at Queen’s College. Mary Boole was a woman ahead of her time who expressed ideas that seemed alien to Victorian minds. When she ran a boarding house for students, she drew them into her colourful and often brilliant thought world. She eagerly and openly introduced them to spiritualism, Judaism (she wrote for Jewish publications), true logic and psychology. She even encouraged her boarders to work through personal problems in encounter groups, something unheard of in the pre-Freudian, pre-Jungian 1870s. She sometimes teetered on the edge of mental instability. Ill health, which ‘assumed the form of temporary derangement’ forced her to resign her post at Queen’s College in 1874.

Ethel remembered the family’s acute poverty but she also recalled a steady stream of intellectuals, scientists, writers and eccentrics flowing through the house, their enlivening conversation and exchange of ideas relieving her misery. When Ethel was eight, she contracted erysipelas, a bacterial skin infection known as the ‘filth disease’ that in her day was potentially fatal. It is likely the Booles’ poor living conditions made Ethel vulnerable. Mrs. Boole decided that a change might do her youngest daughter some good so she sent her off to Lancashire to live with her brother Charles, a mine manager, and his family. It was a decision with unfortunate consequences.

Charles Boole was a religious fanatic and a sadist whose children lived in fear of his frequent beatings. Although he never beat Ethel, he found other ways to abuse, bully and torment the child. He cruelly used music — her passion — as his instrument of abuse, forcing young Ethel to sit at the piano and play for hours while he pounded the keys and made horrible faces. Boole would falsely accuse her of stealing or other alleged crimes. When she refused to confess he would lock her alone in her room for days or threaten to put chemicals in her mouth to make her confess. When her uncle realized that he could not break her iron will, he had the temerity to inform Mary Boole that Ethel was a bad influence on his children. Ethel had endured his cruelty for two years. Soon after returning to London, she suffered a nervous breakdown.

The abuse her uncle heaped upon her scarred Ethel but it did not destroy her. In her 1901 novel, Jack Raymond, Ethel relived her experiences through her central character, a boy who is ill-treated by his sadistic uncle. ‘Mrs. Voynich evidently had something of an obsession with physical pain,’ wrote Arnold Kettle in 1957. ‘Disease, torture and mutilation occur in her books with a frequence for which there is not always artistic justification and there is a rather ghoulish tendency to hover over descriptions of the extremities of physical agony.’(4) Writing in 1904, W. L. Courtney found the book ‘brutal in its remorseless study of the lust of cruelty’.(5)

Ethel’s suffering gave her strength, endurance and courage that would serve her well in the dramatic adventures that were to come. Years later she would say, ‘All my books are about mental shock’,(6)

Not all of Ethel’s childhood and teenage memories were clouded by misery. There were bright spots among them including happy holidays in Cornwall with Mrs. Boole’s relatives which she recalled in her last book, Put off thy shoes (1945). In 1879, she returned to Ireland to spend the summer with her great uncle John Ryall, a classical Greek scholar, and his wife. While there she had a life-altering experience. She read about Giuseppe Mazzini, the Italian writer, politician and revolutionary, whom she made her ideological hero. The seeds for her own commitment to revolutionary causes were sown then. She now dressed in black and preferred to be called ‘Lily’.

When she received a small legacy at age eighteen, Ethel decided to pursue the study of her first love, music. It was a surprising decision considering how Charles Boole had used music to torment her. She journeyed to Berlin to enroll in the Hochschule der Musik where she studied piano and composition for three years (1882-1885). Philipp Spitta, the authority on J. S. Bach, was one of her professors. Friends recalled Ethel walking in Berlin wearing her ankle-length black dress hemmed with pins. They also recalled her ‘extraordinary eyes, and halo of gold hair’.(7)

In Berlin, she became deeply interested in the revolutionary causes of Russia and Central Europe and in her readings was impressed by Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sergei Kravchinski’s Underground Russia. After she returned to England, she decided to study the Russian language and asked her friend Charlotte Wilson, an anarchist, to recommend a teacher. Wilson introduced Ethel to her new-found hero Sergei Kravchinski (1852-1895), known as ‘Stepniak’. He had fled to England after murdering the chief of the Tzarist secret police in 1878. En route to England, he had taken part in revolts in Herzegovina and Italy. From him, Ethel learned the language rapidly. Her sister Lucy studied with her and both women regarded Stepniak as their guardian. Stepniak’s revelations about the plight of the Russian people under Tzarist rule moved Ethel so profoundly that she decided to go there to see for herself.

While en route to St. Petersburg, she stopped in Warsaw where, on Easter Sunday 1887, she stood in the great square staring in horror at the grim facade of the city’s Citadel, which had become a prison. The sight of this blond woman in black intrigued a group of desolate prisoners watching from a window. Remarkably one of these men was to become her husband. His name was Wilfred Michael Voynich, a Polish nationalist, who was about to be sent into exile in Siberia for his role in planning the failed escape of two political prisoners.

Ethel, by then fluent in Russian, settled in St. Petersburg where she supported herself working as a tutor and governess, teaching English and music. She stayed with Stepniak’s sister-in-law, Preskovia Karauloff, a doctor whose husband, Vasili, was in prison serving a four-year term in solitary confinement for his political activities. Ethel, knowing that bad prison food was making Vasili sick, managed to convince a general’s wife to have her prepare food for him which Ethel delivered to the prison. She was never allowed to see Vasili and was often kept waiting for hours. It was during those long waits that she witnessed firsthand the deplorable conditions and inhumane treatment of prisoners. She began asking questions and learned that the cruelty endured by prisoners extended to the treatment of their families. Ethel was cautious, knowing that her association with dissidents was dangerous and potential cause for her own arrest.

The injustice and extreme suffering of the people that she saw fuelled Ethel’s determination to help the Russians in any way she could. She spent her first summer with Preskovia helping her bring medical care and other comforts to peasants living in the area of Pskov (now in Estonia), which was home to the Karauloff family. The journey from St. Petersburg took the women and Preskovia’s young son three days of travelling by horse and primitive cart to the wild lonely area in the Pskov lake district. There they found the peasants suffering from tuberculosis and venereal disease, starving and living in unimaginable filth. Ethel acted as Preskovia’s nurse, knowing that by helping Preskovia and the peasants she was committing a crime.

The following summer she worked briefly as governess on an estate owned by the widow of a chamberlain of the Tsar, who was godfather to one of the children. Ethel met the Tsar and reported that they hated each other. She moved on and spent the remainder of the summer with friends at a manor house on the Volga where she watched a total eclipse of the sun. Before departing from St. Petersburg on 24 May 1889, Ethel saw her friend Preskovia and her son for the last time. They also were leaving to join Preskovia’s husband in exile in Siberia. Ethel arrived back in London pleased that she had successfully smuggled a manuscript out of Russia for Stepniak.

Ethel Lilian Boole had returned home a revolutionary. She and Stepniak organised the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom and she helped edit their monthly magazine Free Russia. Ethel began meeting other revolutionaries, socialists, exiles and writers, including Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Bernard Shaw, William Morris and Oscar Wilde.(8) Stepniak’s home was a way station for Russian political refugees and escapees.

One night towards the end of 1890 another revolutionary entered her life, Wilfred Michael Voynich. Their story reads like the plot for a political mystery-spy-romance thriller. In May 1887, shortly after he had seen Ethel Boole outside the Citadel, Voynich was sent to join other political exiles at Irkutsk, Siberia, near the Mongolian border. Earlier he had been involved in a plot to free two political prisoners being held at the Citadel. The plot was exposed by a traitor among them. Voynich, who had befriended an official, a Lieutenant Colonel Bielanowski to gain information, and his co-conspirators were arrested. His partners and the men they sought to free were hanged. Voynich, on order of the official he had betrayed, was sent to a cell facing the gallows so he could watch his friends die. He remained in prison in a cell so cramped that ‘one shoulder became permanently lower from hunching up’. He contracted tuberculosis. Voynich also carried scars from ‘bullet’ and ‘sword’ wounds.(9) Voynich had told Bielanowski that he wanted to see his mother before he left for Siberia. When Mrs. Voynich arrived at the Citadel, Bielanowski told her that her son had been shot. She fainted and Bielanowski had Voynich brought in to see his mother unconscious on the floor. Such sadistic treatment of family members was common.

In Irkutsk, he met Preskovia and Vasili Karauloff who convinced him that he must escape to England. Preskovia wrote Stepniak’s name and address on a piece of paper along with the name ‘Lily Boole’, asking Voynich to greet her for them. Voynich escaped twice but was re-captured both times. He succeeded on his third attempt. As the story goes, he made his way to Mongolia where he joined a caravan and spent months wandering with them until he reached Peking. From there he made his way to Hamburg, Germany, where he sold his coat and glasses to buy some herring and bread and pay for a third class ticket on a fruit boat bound for England. After a treacherous journey during which the boat ran aground and lost its cargo, Voynich arrived at the London docks hungry, dirty, without any money and speaking no English. He started walking along Commercial Road showing the piece of paper with Stepniak’s name and address to passers-by. A Jewish student who understood Russian brought him to Stepniak.

After Voynich had eaten, bathed and dressed himself in Stepniak’s ill-fitting clothes he was introduced to Ethel Boole. ‘Haven’t I seen you before?’, he asked. ‘Weren’t you standing in the square near the prison fortress on Easter Sunday 1887?’ She confirmed that she was and he replied, ‘I was inside, and I looked out and saw you.’(10) Ethel and Wilfred worked together with Stepniak printing and sending to Russia revolutionary literature and forbidden books, including translations of Marx’s and Engels’ writings. With other dissidents they formed the Russian Free Press Fund. Voynich adopted the pseudonym Ivan Klecevsky.

By 1895, Ethel and Wilfred Voynich were living together seemingly as man and wife. She had adopted his name earlier. She now identified herself as E. L. V., the moniker by which Gurney, Marion Scott and others knew her. The Voyniches did not marry until 1902 and then perhaps only to insure the success of Voynich’s application for citizenship in 1904.(11)

Ethel’s writing, particularly her descriptions of nature, had always impressed Stepniak who encouraged her to ‘observe the characters of human beings and the phenomena of human life’ as she did nature. While some credit him with influencing her to write, she had already written two short stories, In a German Concert Hall and A Winter Dreamer and had begun a novel long before she met Stepniak. She turned her attention to translating both classical and modern Russian writers as well as Ukranian and Russian folk songs into English. Her first book, as Ethel Voynich, was Stories from Garshin, which appeared in 1893. It was followed, in 1895, by The Humour of Russia, one of a series of books on humour from a dozen nations.(12)

In between the publication of her two books, Ethel made a dangerous clandestine visit to L’Vov in the Ukraine to organise the smuggling of illegal publications into Russia. She made new contacts. After she returned to England, Stepniak was killed in a rail accident in December 1895.

Sometime later, the Voyniches met another Russian exile, Sigmund Rosenblum, who eventually became known as Sidney Reilly. History would remember him as Reilly, Ace of Spies. According to legend, he and Ethel ran away to Italy where they carried on a passionate affair. After he opened his heart and told her the details of his background and adventures, he supposedly abandoned her in Florence. She returned to her husband [who, in fact, was not yet her husband], and began writing The Gadfly inspired by Reilly’s life.

That’s the legend. The facts tell a different story. Reilly was not who or what he claimed to be. He manufactured the details of his early life to explain much later (1918/19) how he was recruited to British Intelligence. ‘The truth is that the story of Arthur Burton [the main character in The Gadfly] was the basis for the creation of the fictitious Sidney Reilly rather than the reverse,’ according to Reilly’s biographer Andrew Cook.(13) Reilly also dipped into Ethel Voynich’s 1910 novel An Interrupted Friendship to borrow more ideas in plotting his own fictionalized version of his life.(14)

Ethel had actually conceived the idea for The Gadfly in 1885/86, when Reilly was only about eleven or twelve years old, and had started writing the story in 1889. By the time she met Reilly, her novel was nearly completed. It was published first in New York in June 1897 and then in England in September. Fearing that the book’s anti-clerical, political and love themes along with its graphic depictions of brutality and death might trouble Victorian minds and unleash harsh criticism, the publisher, Heinemann, decided to test reaction by bringing the book out first in the United States. The critics were divided. Joseph Conrad said ‘I don’t ever remember reading a book I disliked so much.’ Bertrand Russell declared it to be ‘one of the most exciting novels I have ever read in the English language.’(15) Other admirers of the novel included Jack London, Rebecca West and D. H. Lawrence. The public loved it and it became a best-seller. The Gadfly was also published in Russia where it was greeted with acclaim and where it was hailed as a classic, a fact Ethel learned many years later.

Some sources claim that the Voyniches ceased their revolutionary activities after Stepniak’s death. Again the facts tell a different story. Wilfred began playing a more covert role in the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom. He began dealing in rare books and manuscripts, a seemingly innocuous profession; however, his London bookshop was a front for smuggling the society’s books and propaganda into Russia and for raising and laundering revolutionary funds. Both British and Russian authorities were aware of his operation because someone close to him, possibly Reilly, was a traitor. Ethel Voynich travelled abroad regularly, serving as a courier for the organization.

By all accounts, Wilfred Voynich was a brilliant man whose ‘seductive’ personality, facility with languages, wide-ranging knowledge, and keen entrepreneurial skills made him a highly successful book dealer. Voynich might have owed his continued success more to his knowledge as a chemist than to his other skills and personality. Born at Kovno, Lithuania on 31 October 1865 of Polish parents, he graduated from Moscow University with a degree in chemistry and was a licensed pharmacist. Not long after he opened his shop he began finding previously unknown rare manuscripts. He was said to have acquired supplies of unused medieval paper from Europe and to have used ‘his knowledge as a chemist to replicate medieval inks and paints, thus enabling him to create "new" medieval manuscripts to order’.(16) Readers’ tickets from the British Museum Library reveal that his associate Sydney Reilly had presented himself as a ‘chemist and physicist’ interested in the study of medieval art.(17) Among the books that he studied were Some observations on ancient inks and A Booke of secrets, shewing divers waies to make and prepare all sorts of Inke and Colours. In 1912, Voynich ‘discovered’ a document known today as ‘The Voynich Manuscript’, a strange manuscript of uncertain origin and meaning that has teased and puzzled cryptographers for nine decades. It made his name.(18)

Eventually the Voyniches did cease their revolutionary activities. Ethel turned her energy to writing full time, producing three more novels before Ivor Gurney met her: Jack Raymond (1901), Olive Latham (1904) and An Interrupted Friendship (1910). Her translations of Shevchenko and Lermontov were published in 1911 by Elkins Mathews. At some point in their marriage, the Voyniches unofficially adopted a daughter Winifred Eisenhardt, who later became Winifred Gaye.(19)

Ethel Voynich and Marion Scott had known each other long before Gurney met either of them. Because the English speaking community in St. Petersburg was relatively small, there is every possibility that Ethel knew members of Scott’s family and had been encouraged to make herself known to Marion’s parents after she returned to England. Marion’s mother, Annie Prince Scott, had been born of American parents in St. Petersburg, where she was reared. Ethel was ten years younger than Marion’s mother and thirteen years older than Marion. Given Annie Scott’s close ties to Russia and her advocacy of social reform, she might well have supported the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom and the Russian Free Press Fund. Mrs. Scott had many relatives living in Russia and her nieces and nephews were all Russian citizens. Ethel Voynich and Marion Scott also shared a common interest in music. Ethel was a member of the Society of Woman Musicians, founded by Scott in 1911.

Despite the early death of their father and the disruption of their childhood, Ethel Voynich’s sisters led accomplished lives. Alicia Boole, later Stott, (1860-1940) inherited her father’s gift for mathematics. Although she had little education and no training in mathematics and worked as a secretary, she nonetheless made important discoveries in the field of geometry. Lucy (1862-1905) studied chemistry with the idea of working as a dispenser or shop assistant in pharmacy. Instead she became a lecturer and eventually head of the chemical laboratories at the London School of Medicine for Women, a Fellow of the Institute of Chemistry, and the first woman professor of chemistry, it is believed, at the Royal Free Hospital in London.(20)

Another Boole sister, Margaret (1858-1935), known as ‘Maggie’, had studied art and married one of her teachers, Edward Taylor, a landscape painter who made a living designing and painting decorations for large public rooms on passenger liners. They settled among other artists living in St. John’s Wood, where they reared their two sons, Julian, a physician, and Geoffrey, one of the most important and influential mathematical physicists of the twentieth century. Maggie Taylor became another of Ivor Gurney’s close friends and confidantes. He was a welcome guest and occasional lodger in her home. Gurney regularly referred to the Taylors in his letters from the Front during World War I. His friend Sydney Shimmin was close to both Mrs. Voynich and the Taylors.

During the early years of the war, when Gurney and Voynich were corresponding, Ethel, who despised war and violence, was a social worker for the Quakers in London’s East End. She was writing a new book and devoting more time to composition. When she showed ‘distinct signs’ of making Ivor her ‘confidant as to her new novel and cantata’, he informed Shimmin that he was reluctant to become involved, perhaps uncomfortable that he might offend Mrs. Voynich with his blunt honesty.(21)

After he was discharged from the Army in October 1918, Gurney experienced a period of instability that concerned his friends who tried to help. Mrs. Voynich was one of them. Shortly before Christmas 1918, he travelled to Cornwall for a holiday with Mrs. Voynich, other members of her family and their friends. During his visit, he and Mrs. Voynich walked on the moors discussing music and her plans to compose a motet. On this holiday, Ivor turned his mind to his own music, composing the song ‘Desire in Spring’, a setting of Francis Ledwidge’s verse ‘Twilight song’. His absorption in writing the song nearly caused him to be trapped atop the rocks at Gurnard Head by the incoming tide. He was rescued by Mrs. Voynich’s nephew Geoffrey Taylor and his friend Adrian Boult. Before he left Cornwall, Ivor thanked Mrs. Voynich with a manuscript copy of ‘Desire in Spring’.(22)

Wilfred Voynich made his first voyage to New York City in November 1914, crossing the Atlantic on the Lusitania. According to the New York Times, Voynich settled in New York in 1915. He had his office at Aeolian Hall on 42nd Street.(23) Ethel Voynich is believed to have emigrated to New York around 1920, however, the first reference to her that I can find doesn’t place her in the U.S. until 22 October 1922 when she arrived in New York City on the Baltic in company with her husband and Anne Nill, who managed the New York office of his book business.

In December of that year, Gurney, delusional and incarcerated in Barnwood House, Gloucester, wrote to Marion Scott expressing concern for Mrs. Voynich: ‘I have seen signs of her being tormented; please protest as it is right to protest against all torment.’(24) Apparently Gurney also wrote some disquieting letters directly to Mrs. Voynich. These letters and her personal encounters with Gurney’s illness disturbed her and were more than she could cope with. She stopped writing to him but continued to hear news of him from Marion Scott.

Settled in New York, Ethel turned her attention to composition and produced a number of cantatas, oratorios and orchestra works, Babylon, Jerusalem, Epitaph in Ballad Form (dedicated to the Irish nationalist Roger David Casement who was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 3 August 1916) and The Sunken City among them. She composed some instrumental music as well as shorter sacred works for performance at Pius X School of Liturgical Music, Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart with which she had a close association. She embarked on an intensive analytical study of music of all eras and from all countries and kept voluminous research notes. She studied orchestration. She taught music. In a letter to an associate, she described the effect she was aiming for in one of her motets: ‘...the secret whisper of grass on a still night...[it] seems so elusive an image, but faint ripples do pass that way over the tips of the grass’.(25)

Wilfred Voynich, his lungs damaged by tuberculosis and heavy smoking, died in March 1930 at the age of sixty-four. The physical hardships he had endured as a prisoner in Poland and Siberia had compromised his health. His long-time secretary-manager Anne M. Nill became Ethel’s ‘companion’. The two women lived together for thirty years in an apartment at London Terrace on West 24th Street in the heart of Manhattan.(26) In 1931, Ethel’s translation of Chopin’s letters was published and remains in print today. She published her final book, Put off thy shoes in 1945 in the U.S. (1946 in England). Every year she re-read all of Shakespeare and Dickens and many of the Russian classics. She never stopped composing music.

By the mid-fifties, Ethel’s health had begun to deteriorate. She was complaining of weakness and hardening of the arteries although the latter does not seem to have affected her mind. She was worried that Anne Nill, now in her early sixties, would not be able to continue working at her job as Ethel became more dependent on her. Then another page turned in Ethel Voynich’s remarkable life.

In 1955, nearly sixty years after the publication of The Gadfly, she learned that she was a celebrity in the Soviet Union, that her novel was regarded as a masterpiece and that Soviet critics ranked her among their choices for great modern writers of English fiction in company with Mark Twain, American novelist Theodore Dreiser and Charles Dickens. These revelations came about after Peter Borisov, who was part of the Russian delegation to the United Nations and admirer of Voynich, decided to learn what had become of her. He expected to find her grave but instead he discovered her alive and well in New York City. To Borisov it was ‘like finding Mark Twain alive...For us, she is a second God,’ he told a reporter for Look, a then-popular American magazine.(27) Borisov, his wife and ten-year-old daughter were the first Soviet citizens to visit her. They regarded the meeting as such a great honour that they spent three months preparing for it.

Other admirers were soon to follow including six Soviet journalists who told her about the extent of her fame. Shortly after their visit, Pravda blazed the headline ‘Voynich is living in New York!’ over a three-column story. Fan mail started to arrive from Russia. Mrs. Voynich was stunned to discover that she was so famous. She and her novel were the subject of countless doctoral dissertations. She was featured regularly on the pages of popular magazines in articles built largely on conjecture since she had never spoken with anyone in Russia about her life. After the publication of The Gadfly in 1947 in Mongolia, where Wilfred Voynich had once roamed in his quest for freedom, she became the idol of teenagers there.

The Gadfly had been a best-seller in Russia for decades but Mrs. Voynich had never received royalties. Authorities estimated that by 1955, it had sold two-and-a-half million copies. It had been translated into the eighteen languages of the Soviet Union and had gone into ninety printings. The Russians sent her a complete set of her book in each of the eighteen languages. Further, she was told that it had been translated into Chinese and had sold 700,000 copies in China. After the Russian journalists wrote about her and cut through some of the political barriers that separated the United States and the Soviet Union, Mrs. Voynich learned that the Russians were thinking about paying foreign royalties. A United Nations lawyer wrote a letter of inquiry to the Russian ambassador to the U.N. which Mrs. Voynich signed. Two weeks later she received a check for $15,000, a small fortune at a time when a new home in America cost about $13,000.(28)

The Gadfly lived in other art forms including two films, one a 1956 version with music by Dmitri Shostakovich, and an opera produced in time to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1957.(29) The Russians were considering a performance of her cantata, The Submerged City for the Bolshoi Theatre and plans were underway to publish her other novels. She continued to receive royalties. Russians visiting New York City made pilgrimages to her apartment to pay their respects.

Ethel Voynich hoped that her new-found fame would inspire better relations between America and Russia. For a time it did. She continued to lead an active intellectual life until shortly before her death on 28 July 1960 at the age of ninety-six. Today, one hundred and seven years after it was first published, The Gadfly is still in print.(30)


1. Ivor Gurney to Marion Scott, 31 August 1913(O) CL, pp. 8-9.

2. Actress Janet Achurch presented a stage version of Lermontov’s dramatic poem The Song of Kalashnikov. Voynich provided the translation and Scott provided her own arrangements of Russian folk-songs that had never been heard in England. She performed them off stage with her string quartet.

3. Mary Everest Boole was a niece of George Everest for whom Mt. Everest is named. She was born in Wickwar, Gloucestershire, the daughter of Dr. Thomas Everest, a minister, but spent her early years in France.

4. Arnold Kettle, ‘E. L. Voynich: A Forgotten English Novelist’, Essays in Criticism, 1957 quoted in Desmond MacHale, George Boole, His Life and Work, (Dublin: Boole Press, 1985).

5. W. L. Courtney, The Feminine Note in Fiction: Mrs. Voynich, (London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd, 1904), p. 171. Gurney’s perception of flaws in The Gadfly corresponds with those of Courtney who found ‘all the last section full of the crudity of undeveloped art, the work of some clever young writer, inspired by the pessimism which is the privilege of youth...Nevertheless, two-thirds of the "The Gadfly" is replete with literary and dramatic skill from which great things may be hoped...’. (p. 164).

6. Anne Fremantle, ‘The Russian Best-seller’, History Today, September 1975, p. 630. Fremantle’s article provides no footnotes or sources for her information. However, it does appear that she knew Ethel Voynich so some of the material she presents could well have come directly from Mrs. Voynich.

7. Ibid.

8. Shaw adapted The Gadfly to the stage in 1898.

9. Op. cit. Fremantle.

10. Ibid.

11. Information provided to the author by Andrew Cook.

12. In his 1985 biography of Voynich’s father George Boole, author Desmond MacHale observes, ‘Russian humour of the Victorian era is unlikely to provoke much laughter nowadays’ and notes that Voynich’s book has become a collector’s item.

13. Correspondence between Andrew Cook and the author, 10 July 2004. According to Mr. Cook it is not likely that Ethel Voynich had an affair with Reilly since ‘anecdotal family sources indicate that Ethel’s sexual preferences may well have precluded a romantic attachment to Rosenblum [Reilly], or indeed any other man, come to that’. (Andrew Cook, The Ace of Spies, the True Story of Sydney Reilly, (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus 2004), p. 37.)

14. Robin Bruce Lockhart, whose father Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart had worked with Reilly, wrote about the alleged affair in his book, Reilly: Ace of Spies. (1967, revised 1984) A 1968 article by Tibor Szamuely, based on Lockhart’s account, appeared in the June issue of The Spectator. Boris Polevoy, one of the journalists who first visited Mrs. Voynich, and Eugenia Taratuta, who published a 1960 biography of Ethel Voynich in Russian, denied the story but later claimed it was true. However, they also believed the story of Reilly’s early background. Polevoy had been an admirer of Mrs. Voynich from the age of nine when his parents gave him a copy of the novel.

15. Laura Berquist, ‘A Best Seller in Russia, Look Magazine, July 8, 1955, p. 69.

16. Andrew Cook, The Ace of Spies, the True Story of Sydney Reilly, (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus 2004, p. 38. Rosenblum/Reilly was a consultant chemist and a Fellow of the Institute of Chemistry and the Chemical Society and ran a patent medicine company.

17. Ibid.

18. Voynich claimed that he found the strange manuscript that now bears his name in the library of Villa Mondragone, a Jesuit college in Frascati, Italy. The 230-page document is hand-written in an unknown alphabet that scholars, including code-breakers at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the United States, have not been able to decipher. The coloured illustrations depict unknown plants, astrological diagrams, and naked women. A letter dating from 1665 or 1666 and found inside the book states that it once belonged to Emperor Rudolf II of Habsburg, who believed it had been written by the English monk Roger Bacon (1214-1294?). Some scholars believe that Edward Kelley, the Englishman who allegedly sold the manuscript to Rudolf II, may have created it to bilk the king. The ‘language' of the document even has its own name now -- ‘Voynichese'. Scholars have called it everything from an account of an ancient civil war written in an ancient form of Ukrainian to a medieval treatise on the elixir of life to an ancient prayer book to an alchemy book to a sixteenth-century hoax to the work of aliens to a hoax created by Voynich himself. Personally I believe that the document is a hoax created by Voynich. Whether Ethel Voynich was aware of or involved in the deception remains an open question. Wilfred willed the manuscript to Ethel. She willed it to her companion Anne Nill, who sold it to Hans P. Kraus, a New York book dealer in 1960 for $24,500 (about $169,000 or Ł93,000 today). Kraus valued the document at $160,000 (over a million dollars now) and attempted for some years to sell it but no one was interested. He donated it to the Beinecke Library at Yale University in Connecticut where it remains today still teasing scholars. The July 2004 issue of The Scientific American features a six page article, ‘The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript' and there are dozens of Internet web sites devoted to it.

19. In her will, Mrs. Voynich made Mrs. Gaye her secondary heir in the event that her primary heir Anne M. Nill predeceased her. Mrs. Voynich states in the will that Mrs. Gaye ‘who though not legally adopted by me has always been considered by me as a daughter’. Mrs. Gaye had at least one son and was living in Somerset in 1992.

20. Mary (1856-?), the eldest Boole daughter, was the least visible of her siblings. She married Charles H. Hinton, a teacher, mathematician, inventor and esoteric theorist whose escapades as a bigamist landed him in trouble with the law. Mary had taught for a while in Japan and her accounts of her experiences there show a flair for writing. Lucy’s promising career was cut short by her premature death at the age of forty-three.

21. After Gurney’s death in 1937, Marion Scott sent Ethel a copy of the January 1938 issue of Music and Letters featuring a symposium on Ivor. Ethel wrote back (4 March 1938) telling her that the ‘little motet’ that she had discussed long ago with Gurney on a Cornwall moor ‘jumped out ready to be put on paper’ as soon as the Music and Letters arrived.

22. Gurney to Shimmin, early January 1917(KT), CL, p. 180. Gurney’s last letter to Voynich in the Collected Letters dates from February 1917, but he continued writing to her throughout the war and after. Those letters might have been lost or destroyed (Voynich told Scott that she had destroyed some of her correspondence when she moved to the U.S.). In the Ethel Voynich collection at the Library of Congress, I found a stiff brown, tie-envelope folder that had once contained Gurney’s letters to Voynich. The written reference to them on the envelope has been crossed out and they were not in the folder nor were her copies of Severn & Somme and War’s Embers, also listed on the label. Either these letters were moved to another file among Ethel’s papers or she sent her extant correspondence with Gurney to Marion Scott who included them with the material now in the Gurney Archive. Other items relating to Gurney or items in his own hand were still in the folder. Based on new leads about Voynich’s life, I am pursuing this matter further on the off-chance that more Gurney letters as well as Marion Scott letters might be found. Ethel Voynich and Maggie Taylor knew the details of Gurney’s relationship with Nurse Annie Drummond, which Gurney tried to keep from Marion Scott.

23. In February 1924, George Gershwin premiered his Rhapsody in Blue at Aeolian Hall.

24. Gurney to Scott, December 1922(KT), p. 553.

25. Ethel Voynich to Carl Engel, 24 March 1925, Carl Engel Collection, Library of Congress.

26. Anne Margaret Nill was born in Buffalo, New York in 1894. Some sources suggest that Wilfred Voynich and Anne Nill, had started working together as early as 1914 and that she had travelled with him to the United States then. However, Nill was an American citizen and it appears that she began her association with Wilfred Voynich in New York City around 1921, not in London and not earlier. Voynich maintained offices in both New York and London until his death.

27. Op. cit. Berquist.

28. Today $15,000 in royalties would be worth about $103,000 or about Ł57,000.

29. The theme music for the popular television series, Reilly: Ace of Spies was adapted from ‘The Romance’ from Shostakovich’s 1956 film score for The Gadfly.

30. The most recent figures I have been able to find about sales of The Gadfly in Russia date from the mid-1970s. By then it had been translated into twenty-two languages in 107 editions and had sold over five million copies. In the 1970s and perhaps even now, The Gadfly was required reading in the seventh grade throughout Russia. It was estimated that over 250 million teenagers had read the book by the mid-seventies. Mrs. Voynich continues to intrigue the Russians. There are at least a half dozen web sites about her in Russian on the Internet.


George Batchelor, The Life and Legacy of G. I. Taylor, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Laura Berquist, ‘A Best Seller in Russia’, Look Magazine, July 8, 1955, pp. 68-70.

City News, ‘Miss Achurch Recital’, 6 May 1908.

Andrew Cook, The Ace of Spies, the True Story of Sidney Reilly, (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2004).

W. L. Courtney, The Feminine Note in Fiction: Mrs. Voynich, (London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd, 1904).

Daily Dispatch, ‘Miss Achurch’s Company in a Tragedy’, May 7, 1908.

Anne Fremantle, ‘The Russian Best-Seller’, History Today, September 1975.

Ivor Gurney Collected Letters, Edited by R. K. R. Thornton, (Ashington & Manchester: Mid/NAG.Carcant. 1991).

Desmond MacHale, George Boole, His Life and Work, (Dublin: Boole Press, 1985

Manchester Courier, ‘Miss Janet Achurch’s Recital -- "The Song of Kalashnikov"’, 6 May 1908.

Manchester Guardian, ‘A New Play’, 6 May 1908.

-- ‘The Song of Kalashnikoff’, 6 May 1908.

New York Times, ‘Ethel L. Voynich, Novelist, Was 96’, 29 July 1960, p. 25.

-- ‘W. M. Voynich Dies; Noted Bibliophile’ 20 March 1930, p. 27.

Other Sources

Correspondence with Andrew Cook, Dr. Barbara Garlick, Dr. Desmond MacHale.

Cunard Line, passenger records.

Ellis Island New York, immigration records.

Ivor Gurney Archive, Gloucester, England.

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

University College, Boole Archive, Cork, Ireland

Various Internet sites about Wilfred Voynich and the Voynich Manuscript.

Ethel Voynich Will, County of New York.

I am most grateful to Andrew Cook and Dr. Desmond MacHale who so generously shared information with me.

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