Ivor Gurney’s Friends
Ethel Voynich — ‘E. L. V.’
Revolutionary, Novelist, Translator, Composer
by Pamela Blevins
The above painting of Ethel Boole is by an unknown artist and is held at Putney School, Vermont, USA.
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
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
Influential friends rallied and she was appointed librarian at Queen’s College, a women’s college in
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
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
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
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
While en route to
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Wilfred Voynich made his first voyage to
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.
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
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
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
The Gadfly had been a best-seller in
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
Ethel Voynich hoped that her new-found fame would inspire better relations between
Ethel Voynich turns 95
Watch the 1959 filming of Ethel on her 95th Birthday in her New York apartment.
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
3. Mary Everest Boole was a niece of George Everest for whom
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.
8. Shaw adapted The Gadfly to the stage in 1898.
9. Op. cit. Fremantle.
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
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.
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 $160,0f00 (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.hi
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, (
Manchester Courier, ‘Miss Janet Achurch’s Recital -- "The Song of Kalashnikov"’, 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.
Correspondence with Andrew Cook, Dr. Barbara Garlick, Dr. Desmond MacHale.
Cunard Line, passenger records.
Ivor Gurney Archive,
Library of Congress,
Various Internet sites about Wilfred Voynich and the Voynich Manuscript.
Ethel Voynich Will,
I am most grateful to Andrew Cook and Dr. Desmond MacHale who so generously shared information with me.