Thursday, 19 November 2009

Gadflies, spies, cyphers

Clare and I are fans of Shostakovich, a particular favourite being his Gadfly Suite, from which the Romance is embedded above. Beyond knowing it to be a film score, we'd never considered investigating more deeply; but doing so reveals an amazing nexus of cultural connections around one person.

As the Boosey and Hawkes page shows - Shostakovich, Dmitri: The Gadfly - Suite op. 97a (1955) 40' - the suite is the score for a 1950 Soviet historical costume drama set in the 1830s-40s Risorgimento Italy, the setting giving Shostakovich free rein to write beautiful pastiche of Italian styles. The film in turn is based on an 1897 novel of the same name - see Gutenberg EText-No. 3431 - by Ethel Lilian Voynich. Its theme is somewhat like Rafael Sabatini's later Scaramouche: an illegitimate orphan, Arthur Burton ("the Gadfly"), acquires political awareness and becomes a revolutionary - see synopsis. The novel become a best-seller in both Soviet Russia and the People's Republic of China.

But talk about "Six Degrees of Separation"! Apart from being a bestselling novelist, revolutionary activist and musician, Ethel Voynich's connections are astounding. She was the daughter of George Boole (who invented the logic that's the basis of modern computing) and the mathematician and feminist philosopher Mary Everest Boole. She was the niece of George Everest - yes, that one. She was married to the revolutionary, antiquarian and bibliophile Wilfrid Michael Voynich, buyer in 1912 of the famously enigmatic Voynich Manuscript; she, in turn, became its owner until her death in 1961.

More complicated still, the background to The Gadfly was Ethel Voynich's relationship with the adventurer and secret agent Sidney Reilly (a.k.a. "Ace of Spies"). Some sources claim The Gadfly to be based on Riley's own adventures in his younger days. Whatever the nature of the relationship, and whether truly about him or not - Riley's origins are lost in a mist of conflicting mythologies - all this explains a connection that brings us full circle again: why the Romance from Shostakovich's Gadfly score was used as theme tune for the 1983 miniseries Reilly, Ace of Spies.

A number of Ethel Voynich's works are online at the Internet Archive:
  • Nihilism as it is and Claims of the Russian liberals: translations of political pamphlets by Stepniak and Felix Volkhovsky.
  • The Humour of Russia (1895): translations of various Russian comic sketches.
  • The Gadfly (1897): novel as described.
  • Jack Raymond (1901): a coming-of-age novel set in Cornwall and primarily about the battle of wills between an intense orphaned boy and his cruel uncle and guardian, the Vicar of Porthcarrick.
  • Olive Latham (1904): a novel about story of a rich young woman who chooses to work as a nurse out of social conscience, and then becomes involved with a Russian Nihilist revolutionary.
She also wrote two sequels to The Gadfly: the 1910 An Interrupted Friendship; and, after a break of three decades in which she concentrated on music, the 1945 Put Off Thy Shoes, which visited the Cornish childhood of Gemma, the heroine of The Gadfly.
- Ray


  1. Truly cool. Through this thread runs that of Marshall Radetzky and the Austrians. Two books that come to mind are Stendhal's "The Charterhouse of Parma" which predates the Risorgimento by a little but still has the conflict with Austria, and, of course Roth's "Radetzky March" whose protagonist's father fought at the Battle of Solferino the toxic aftermath of which incited the formation of the Red Cross.

    I see that The Gadfly is on Project Gutenberg which means I can read it on my cell phone once I finish "The Last American" which is fascinating in its own right and will deserve a separate post at my home blog.

    I admire your appreciation for Shostakovich. I note that he lost the use of one of hands to polio. Ironically, Russia now has a good rate of polio vaccination at least what I observed in 1998.

  2. Truly cool

    Just so - the way these connections just blossom out is amazing.