Voynich’s The Gadfly: Exploring Connections between Revolutionary Russia and Ireland

By Anna Lively

Anglo-Irish writer Ethel Voynich’s The Gadfly (1897) is a dramatic story of revolutionary ambition and the fraught relationship between revolutionary movements and the Catholic Church. Set during the nineteenth-century Italian Risorgimento, it tells the story of an Englishman named Arthur (the ‘Gadfly’) who becomes embroiled in the Young Italy movement, helping to distribute weapons and spread seditious, anti-clerical pamphlets. Alongside the Gadfly, there is the quietly brave and revolutionary Gemma, who defies traditional gender roles. This book gained a huge international profile and was popular in Soviet Russia and later in communist China.

This globally-influential Anglo-Irish novel reveals connections between revolutionary Russia and Ireland. The movement towards independence in Ireland c. 1912 to 1923 is now commonly referred to as the Irish Revolution, although this term remains contentious. The more conservative nature of the Irish revolution compared to its Russian counterpart in 1917 has led scholars to ignore their points of comparison and overlap. The Gadfly offers the opportunity to compare these two revolutions in terms of Voynich’s own biography, themes in the novel, and the distribution and political use of the book in Russia and Ireland. 

Voynich’s biography demonstrates the importance of transnational political and cultural networks on the eve of the Irish and Russian Revolutions. Voynich (née Boole) was born in 1864 in Blackrock in Cork to English parents, the celebrated mathematicians and philosophers George and Mary Boole. She moved to London after the death of her father but returned to Ireland regularly during her childhood. As a young woman, she became involved in radical circles in London, meeting prominent Russian political exiles like Prince P. A. Kropotkin and Stepniak (Sergey Kravchinsky). With Stepniak’s help, she learned Russian, working as a governess and tutor in Russia in the late 1880s. Her connections to the Russian Empire deepened after she met and later married Wilfred Michael Voynich, a political radical from Poland (then partly under Russian imperial control), who had recently escaped from exile in Siberia.

While few Irish radicals travelled to Russia or married Russian subjects, Voynich was not alone in her curiosity about Russian politics. During the 1920s and 1930s, numerous young Irish radicals, such as Roddy Connolly (son of the influential socialist and revolutionary James Connolly) and Rosamond Jacob, followed in her footsteps to Moscow, searching for political possibilities. Voynich’s life is just one example of how people’s lives and experiences transcended national and political borders during the revolutionary period, defying neat historiographical categorizations.

The themes of The Gadfly relate to important social and political debates in revolutionary Russia and Ireland. Despite its historical Italian setting, the novel had contemporary political implications. At a time of international suffrage movements, the novel suggests women could play an important role in revolutionary movements. The narrator declares how “Gemma would fight at the barricades. She was made of the clay in which heroines are moulded; she would be the perfect comrade.” Russian and Irish women would indeed play an important role on the ‘barricades’, whether it be women like Constance Markievicz in the Easter Rising, or Bolshevik feminists like Alexandra Kollontai.

The relationship between the Church and revolution is also central throughout the novel. In one dramatic scene, we learn how a Catholic priest informed on the Gadfly after he gave away details of the revolutionary movement in confession. Voynich’s own relationship to religion was complex and changed throughout her life, reflecting some of the wider debates surrounding atheism and socialism in both Russia and Ireland at this time.

The circulation of The Gadfly demonstrates the political significance of literature in Russia and Ireland. The Gadfly was first published in the US and then in Britain in 1897, before being translated into Russian by the critic and translator Zinaida Vengerova, whom Voynich had met in Russia. The dramatic novel became hugely popular, first appearing in serial form in the socialist-leaning journal Mir Bozhii and then in multiple book editions after 1900. Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, The Gadfly (or Ovod in Russian) became a staple revolutionary text, selling an estimated 4 million copies with at least 60 Russian-language editions in print. A 1957 article in the Soviet cultural journal Voprosy Literatury commented on the book’s significance, although it lamented how little was known about its mysterious Anglo-Irish author. This changed after Soviet journalists rediscovered the elderly Voynich in New York, helping her to gain celebrity status in the Soviet Union.

The Gadfly was far less successful in Ireland than in the Soviet Union. During the Irish Civil War of 1922 to 1923, The Gadfly was circulated in some republican circles, including among anti-Treaty prisoners. In his memoir, the Donegal republican Peadar O’Donnell commented how it “is a curious fact, which many of the Mountjoy prisoners must be easily able to recall, that it was around these days that the Gadfly was being widely read in ‘C’ wing.” O’Donnell remembers how his fellow prisoner Joe McKelvey “often commented” on the book, particularly the Gadfly’s execution; McKelvey even placed the book beside his bed before his own execution in December 1922. After this, the book largely fell into obscurity in Ireland. One journalist noted in 1966 how the “only literary recognition [Voynich] has received in her own country is that the book was placed on the banned list of publications some 50 years after it appeared.”

The history of The Gadfly demonstrates the globally-connected nature of both the Russian and Irish Revolutions. Voynich’s travels and circulation of the Gadfly among republican prisoners suggest that the Irish Revolution was not uniformly conservative or detached from international radicalism. And yet The Gadfly was far less popular in Ireland compared to in the Soviet Union. Political policies and cultural attitudes to religion were an important factor in this, and in the wider divergence of the revolutions. The novel’s anti-clerical tone was popular in the Soviet Union, but in post-revolutionary Ireland the Catholic Church exerted considerable influence over society and politics. With its hero the ‘Gadfly’ making blasphemous comments like the “mental disease called religion”, it is hardly surprising that neither the book nor its author was widely celebrated in post-independence Ireland.

Anna Lively is a History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh studying the ‘Transnational connections between the Russian and Irish Revolutions, 1905–1923’. She previously completed an MSc in Contemporary History at the University of Edinburgh, and a BA in History at the University of Exeter. Her research is funded by a Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities studentship. She tweets @AnnaLively14.

Title image: From Left to Right: Original 1897 cover, Photo of Ethel Voynich, and Voynich, Овод, Habarovsk,  1978.

Further Reading:

Casey, Maurice. ‘Red Easter’, History Ireland, vol. 24, no. 5 (2016), 40-2. 

Fremantle, Anne. ‘The Russian Best-seller’, History Today, vol. 25, issue 9 (1975), 629-37.

O’Connor, Emmet. Reds and the Green: Ireland, Russia and the Communist Internationals, 1919-43 (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2004).

McGeever, Brendan, ‘The Easter Rising and the Soviet Union: an untold chapter in Ireland’s great rebellion’, Open Democracy, 25 March 2016, accessible at https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/brendan-mcgeever/easter-rising-and-soviet-union-untold-chapter-in-ireland-s-great-rebellion.


[1] Patrick Waddington, ‘Voynich [née Boole], Ethel Lilian (1864–1960)’ (2010). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-38488 18 Nov. 2018.

[2] Ethel Voynich, The Gadfly (Winnetka, Calif.: Norilana Books, 2006), 50.

[3] Ibid., 48-9.

[4] E. Brandis, ‘Rable pod zapretom’, Voprosy Literatury, 3 (1957).

[5] Lewis Bernhardt, ‘‘The Gadfly’ in Russia’, Princeton University Library Chronicle, vol. 28, no. 1 (1966), 1-19. 

[6] Peadar O’Donnell, The Gates Flew Open: An Irish Civil War Prison Diary (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 64-5; Maggie Armstrong, ‘Cork’s heroine of communist literature’, The Irish Times, 30 July 2010, accessed at https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/cork-s-heroine-of-communist-literature-1.629829 18 November 2018.

[7] Voynich, The Gadfly, 60; Joe Joyce, ‘From the Archives’, Irish Times, 27 April 1966, 24.

[8] Voynich, The Gadfly, 179.

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