Ethel Lilian Voynich [Boole]
Ethel Lilian Voynich, novelist and musician, was the youngest daughter of George Boole and the feminist philosopher, Mary Everest Boole. She was born in Cork in 1864, six months before her father died.
Known as ‘Lily’, she spent her early years in London. Her mother was appointed Librarian at Queen's College, and was also a contributor to Crank, a progressive periodical. Lily was sent to live with the family of her uncle in Lancashire to improve her health. She later described him as 'a religious fanatic and sadist', who forced her to play the piano for hours. After two years she returned to London.
In 1879 she spent a summer in Cork with her grand-uncle, John Ryall, Professor of Greek and Vice President of Queen's College. This was the start of her interest in revolutionary struggles to improve the lot of the poorest in society. She discovered the works of Giuseppe Mazzini, and read about the Risorgimento in Italy.
From 1882-5 thanks to a small legacy she studied piano and composition at the Berlin Conservatory. On returning to London she was introduced to Sergei Kravchinsky (1852-1895) also known as Stepniak, revolutionary and writer. He and his wife taught Russian to Lily and her sister Lucy, as they had to Constance Garnett, the translator.
In 1887 Lily travelled to Russia to see for herself the plight of the Russian people. In St Petersburg she smuggled food into the prison, and met relatives of other prisoners, hearing their stories of repression and deprivation. A steamboat journey on the Volga kindled a lifelong interest in Slavonic folk song.
In 1889, back in London, she met Wilfrid Michael Voynich, a Polish political refugee, who eventually became her husband, and a rare book dealer. He is best known for the Voynich Manuscript, a medieval manuscript that he discovered in Italy, written in a language that has never been deciphered.
Her earliest publications, under the pen name E.L. Voynich were translations from the Russian. She was an exceptionally gifted linguist, quickly adding Ukranian and Polish to the languages she had mastered. To this day her translation of Chopin's letters from the Polish remains the standard edition.
The Voyniches moved to Soho where they had an antiquarian book business. Initially this was also a front for the dissemination of anti-Tsarist propaganda, but with the death of Stepniak in 1895, their revolutionary activity ceased.
E.L. Voynich's best known novel, The Gadfly was published in New York in 1897, and shortly afterwards in London. A gripping adventure story, set in the Risorgimento, pitting the ideals of youth against the corruption of the older generation, it has entertained and inspired generations of young people. In 1898 it was staged in London by George Bernard Shaw, and in 1955 in the USSR it was filmed with a score by Shostakovich that included the ever-popular Romance theme. The Gadfly was read by generations of teenagers in schools in the Soviet Union, and also enjoyed great success in Communist China.
E.L. Voynich worked with the Quakers in the East End of London from 1914-18, and was active as a composer in London until 1921 when she joined her husband in New York. In New York she taught and composed music. After Wilfrid's death in 1930, E.L. Voynich shared a New York apartment with their business associate Anne Nil, and her adopted daughter, Winifred Gaye. In 1955 a Soviet delegate to the UN discovered that she was still alive, and in financial straits. The Soviet Union paid her a generous sum in lieu of royalties, relieving her of financial worries. In 1957 her cantata The Submerged City was performed at the Bolshoi Theatre. She died on 27 July 1960 in New York.