Author: Huxleў
© Huxleў — almanac about philosophy, business, art and science.
Liberal Arts
6 minutes for reading

How the daughter of the founder of the digital world wrote «The Gadfly», translated Shevchenko’s «Zapovit» and conquered Agent 007

How the daughter of the founder of the digital world wrote «The Gadfly», translated Shevchenko's «Zapovit» and conquered Agent 007
Share material
Ethel Lillian Voynich in old age /


In 1897, the novel «The Gadfly» caused a sensation in the United States. It had a significant influence on the work of Jack London. It was adapted by Bernard Shaw himself for a theater production. In the USSR, the novel about the freedom fighter of Italy, Arthur Burton, was published in millions of copies, considering the author long dead.


When it turned out that Ethel Lillian Voynich was quietly living in the United States, Nikita Khrushchev decided to correct the embarrassment and paid her $15,000. Today, the name of the English writer is almost forgotten, although her incredible biography itself looks like a novel, and the prototypes of her characters are still argued about.




Ethel Lillian Voynich, née Boole, was born in 1864. Her grandfather was a simple shoemaker and part-time self-taught optician. He loved making telescopes more than repairing clogs, and because of this, he eventually went bankrupt.

The Boole family kept her grandfather’s, where a note from her grandmother lay next to the telescopes: «He seemed to be able to do everything perfectly. Everything except his work.» However, his main legacy is the love of science and languages, which he instilled in Lillian’s father, George Boole Jr. The child prodigy learned Latin, Greek, French, and German on his own.

At the age of 16, he was already teaching at school. Boole became the winner of the first gold medal in mathematics, established by the Royal Society of London. Without a degree or school certificate, he became a professor of mathematics at University College Cork.




Scientific success was followed by marriage. Mary Everest was 17 years younger, slightly exalted, and had no less strange kin than George.

Her uncle, Sir George Everest, head of the British Geodetic Survey in India, hotly protested when they decided to assign his name to the highest mountain on the planet — after all, he had never seen it in his life! But with the British Geographical Society to argue was useless…

The marriage was happy but lasted only 9 years. George died, leaving Mary with 5 daughters and science — «Boolean algebra.» If Newton discovered the laws of nature, Boole tried to describe the laws of thought in the language of algebra. Instead of words, he used mathematical symbols, reducing algebraic transformations to two solutions — 0 or 1.

Ahead of his time, Boole became one of the founders of modern digital civilization.




Boole’s youngest daughter, Ethel Lillian, grew up stubborn and possessed a remarkable imagination. Family legend told that the Booles once sheltered Italian rebels Count Castellammare and Carlo Poerio. Lily had never seen these people, but in all seriousness, she claimed that the Count fell in love with her and that she did not run away with him only because she pitied her mother.

Rich imagination helped the orphan to survive in a cruel world. One day, her father’s brother, to whom the Booleys moved, locked Lily in the closet for theft, which she did not commit. The girl fervently begged for rescue. But unlike Count Castellamare’s fictitious love, her love for God was unrequited.

Lily forbade to turn to the Creator and decided to defend herself, threatening her uncle with suicide. The mother had to move with her daughters to London. When Lily discovered a remarkable talent for playing the piano, she, having received a small inheritance, entered the Berlin Conservatory.




Lily remembered how, as a child, her mother took her to Blarney Castle and showed her a magic stone that would give a gift to whoever touched it. The ingenious girl touched it a few times… But God had failed Lily again. A strange disease was convulsing her fingers — her career as a pianist had to be forgotten.

In a state of severe depression, the girl went on a trip to Europe. In the Louvre, she was struck by the «Portrait of a Young Man» by Francesco Franchabijo. Many hours she spent in front of the painting, looking into the eyes of a young man, where read boundless sorrow and stubbornness.

Art therapy sessions helped. Lily returned to life, but everywhere carried a copy of the portrait and, for the rest of her life, dressed only in black. This color became a symbol of rebellion against universal injustice — so she imitated the Italian Carbonari Giuseppe Mazzini, who wore mourning for his oppressed homeland.


Франчабиджо. Портрет молодого человека, 1509
Francesco Franchabigio. Portrait of a Young Man, 1509 /


By joining the Huxleў friends club, you support philosophy, science and art




It is not known how Lily’s life would have turned out if she had not met the Ukrainian nationalist writer Sergiy Stepnyak-Kravchinsky. The girl was 13 years younger than Sergiy and called him her caregiver. Kravchinsky was known for stabbing the chief of the gendarmes in Russia, and abroad, he used the same knife to chop wood chips for the fireplace. The Ukrainian version of Count Castellammare took possession of Boole’s soul, as her guardian liked to call her.

Together with him, she went headlong into the revolution. Unfortunately, Sergiy was married, but when did that ever get in the way of a real feeling? The caregiver called Ukraine «the country of the Dnipro,» and Boole fell in love with it in absentia. She was sincerely fascinated by the works of Shevchenko, considering him one of the best lyricists in the world.

After learning Ukrainian, Lily translated Kobzar’s folk songs, verses, and poems into English. To this day, her translation of «Zapovit» is one of the best.

Until the end of her life, she carefully kept and reread Shevchenko’s collection, published in Geneva in 1891. On behalf of Stepnyak, she visited Lviv, where she met writer Ivan Franko and publicist Mykhailo Pavlik. The latter, however, at first mistook her for a security agent.


Обложка первого издания книги «Овод», июнь 1897 года
Cover of the first edition of the book «Gadfly», June 1897 /




At the «George Hotel» in Lviv, where Balzac once stayed, her affair with an English spy known by the pseudonym Sidney Reilly began. According to another version, their meeting took place in London, but with people like Reilly, nothing can be sure.

Lily’s favorite was a native of either Kherson or Odesa. His name was actually Solomon or Sigmund. But his last name was definitely Rosenblum. And he fostered so many incredible legends around him that the writer Ian Fleming chose him as the prototype of his James Bond, the famous «Agent 007».

However, there are researchers who prove that Rosenblum was also the prototype of Ostap Bender. Apparently, all adventurers have some common features, and Reilly was a reference adventurer. He knew eight languages. He had incredible charisma, a dozen passports, and about the same number of official wives.

He poisoned the richest of them to get his hands on their fortunes. Spied for several governments at the same time, but in 1897 he became Britain’s official spy. He was friends with Grigory Rasputin and was preparing the assassination of Lenin. He was an arms dealer who made counterfeit money.




According to the official version of the Kremlin, he was shot by the Chekists in 1925. But they say that in the 40s, he was seen in different countries of the world. What could connect Lily with such a man? Perhaps the memories of a difficult childhood, a rich imagination, and a habit of defying fate.

Reilly’s biography is somewhat similar to the story of Gadfly. He was also illegitimate and also faked suicide. There is documentary evidence that the writer and the spy met in Italy, where Lily worked on the novel, but the nature of their relationship is still a mystery.

Most likely, the Gadfly had many prototypes — it and Count Castellammare, and the young man from the portrait, and Mazzini, and Kravchinsky, and Reilly … The lists can include the writer’s husband, Polish revolutionary and antiquarian Wilfrid Voynich — the discoverer of the mysterious ancient manuscript known as the «Voynich Manuscript».




Lily became infatuated with Wilfrid in England, where he had barely survived his escape from exile in Siberia. Introduced them all the same Kravchinsky, with whom the ungrateful fugitive subsequently constantly conflicted.

Over time, Voynichs moved to New York. Wilfrid got fat, bored, and cooled to the revolution. Lily scornfully wrote about her husband: «Our nihilist feels good under my command. Should not the father-king me sincerely thank me for the way I save his royal game?»

Ethel Lillian Voynich passed away in her 97th year. According to her will, her body was cremated, and her ashes scattered over New York’s Central Park. But her spirit continues to dwell within the walls of another city — Lviv.

Not so long ago, Chinese filmmakers, together with the Dovzhenko Film Studio, shot a 20-part TV version of «The Gadfly,» which unfortunately remains unavailable outside of China.


When copying materials, please place an active link to
By joining the Huxleў friends club, you support philosophy, science and art
Share material

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: