Ethel Lilian Voynich (1864-1960), novelist and scholar

Ethel Lilian Voynich. Public Domain.

Ethel Lilian Voynich (née Boole) was an Irish novelist, musician and revolutionary in her own right, as well as being married to the bookseller Wilfrid Michael Voynich. She was born in Ballintemple, Cork, to a family of mathematicians and philosophers. Her childhood, however, was not exactly a happy one, and she would later distil these experiences into the novel Jack Raymond (1901). After receiving a legacy upon turning eighteen, Ethel went to study music in Berlin and then spent time working as a governess and nurses’ assistant in Russia. It was here that Ethel’s Russophilia and interest in revolutionary politics turned to affirmative action, as on her way back to London, she smuggled manuscripts by literary critic Maria Tsebrikova out of Russia. Once back in London, Ethel became part of its network of Russian and Polish émigrés and intellectuals; it was through these contacts she met Wilfrid Voynich in 1890, whom she officially married in 1902.

After Wilfrid’s death in 1930, she and Anne Nill (Wilfrid’s long-time secretary turned bookseller) continued to run the antiquarian book business for several years, and tried, unsuccessfully, to find a buyer for the mysterious Voynich Manuscript. In the meantime, Ethel took to studying the botanical aspects of this manuscript in depth. Along with maintaining a life-long interest in playing and composing music, Ethel published four novels as well as translations of Russian literature and editing the definitive collection of Chopin’s letters. Her most popular novel, revolutionary tragic romance The Gadfly (1895), spawned multiple plays, operas and films, and garnered her much fame in her later years in the Soviet Union, where it experienced something of a revival in the 1950s. Though she has slipped from cultural memory in the English-speaking world, her books have been translated into numerous languages with sales reaching upwards of 20 million copies worldwide.

Natalia Fantetti