Ethel Lilian Boole Voynich (11 May 1864 – 27 July 1960) was a novelist and musician, and a supporter of several revolutionary causes.

Her father was the famous mathematician George Boole. Her mother was Mary Everest Boole, daughter of homeopath Thomas Roupell Everest and niece of George Everest.

Ethel was married to Wilfrid Michael Voynich (1865-1930), revolutionary, antiquarian and bibliophile; he was the eponymous owner of the Voynich manuscript.

Ethel was the author of the novel The Gadfly. This became a bestseller in the Soviet Union with more than 2.5 million copies sold.

Despite the fact that Mary Everest was seventeen years younger than George Boole, they had a good and happy marriage. Over the next nine years, Mary and George had five daughters called Mary, Margaret, Alice, Lucy Everest Boole and Ethel. However, this happiness would soon fade. In 1864, when she was just seven months old, Ethel’s father George Boole contracted pneumonia and died, leaving Mary Everest Boole with five daughters and very little money. Nonetheless, Mary educated their daughters well in mathematics and geometry, logic and thinking for themselves. Ethel was also taught by Sergyei “Stepniak” Kravchinsky, as was her sister, the future chemist Lucy, and both women regarded Stepniak as their guardian.

Ethel is most famous for her novel The Gadfly, first published in 1897 in the United States (June) and Britain (September), about the struggles of an international revolutionary in Italy. This novel was very popular in the Soviet Union and was the top best seller and compulsory reading there, and was seen as ideologically useful; for similar reasons, the novel has been popular in the People’s Republic of China as well.

By the time of Voynich’s death The Gadfly had sold an estimated 2,500,000 copies in the Soviet Union.

In 1955, the Soviet director Aleksandr Fajntsimmer adapted the novel into a film of the same title (Russian: Ovod). Composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote the score, The Gadfly Suite. The Romance, a segment from this composition, along with some other excerpts, has since become very popular. Dmitri Shostakovich‘s Gadfly theme was also used in the eighties, in the BBC TV series about Sidney Reilly‘s life.

According to historian Robin Bruce Lockhart, Sidney Reilly — a Russian-born adventurer and secret agent employed by the British Secret Intelligence Service — met Ethel Voynich in London in 1895.

Ethel Voynich was a significant figure not only on the late Victorian literary scene but also in Russian émigré circles. Robin Bruce Lockhart, who was also a British Secret Service agent, claims that Sidney Reilly and Ethel Voynich had a sexual liaison and voyaged to Italy together. During this scenic dalliance, Sidney Reilly apparently “bared his soul to his mistress,” and revealed to her the story of his strange youth in Russia.

After their brief affair had concluded, Voynich published in 1897 her critically acclaimed novel, The Gadfly, the central character of which, Arthur Burton, was allegedly based on Sidney Reilly‘s own early life.

However, Andrew Cook, a noted biographer of Sidney Reilly, disputes Robin Bruce Lockhart‘s version and counters instead that Sidney Reilly was perhaps informing on Ethel Voynich’s radical, pro-émigré activities to William Melville of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch.


Michał Habdank-Wojnicz was born in Telshi, a town in then Kovno Governorate, which was part of the Russian Empire, now it is Telšiai, a town in Lithuania, into a Polish-Lithuanian noble family, the son of a titular counsellor.

In 1885, in Warsaw, Wojnicz joined Ludwik Waryński’s revolutionary organization, Proletarjat. In 1886, after a failed attempt to free from the Warsaw Citadel fellow-conspirators who had been sentenced to death, he was arrested by Tsarist police and, in 1887, sent to penal servitude at Tunka.

In 1890 Voynich escaped from Siberia and arrived in London. In 1893 he married a fellow-revolutionary, Ethel Lilian Boole, daughter of the famous British mathematician, George Boole.

After the 1895 death of their associate, Stepniak, the Voyniches (as they had anglicized their surname) ceased revolutionary activity.

In 1898 Voynich opened an antiquarian bookshop in London, followed by another in 1914 in New York City. Voynich died in New York in 1930 of lung cancer.

Ethel Lilian Voynich died in New York on 27 July 1960 at the age of 96.

A minor planet, 2032 Ethel, was discovered in 1970 by Soviet astronomer Tamara Mikhailovna Smirnova and named after Ethel Voynich.

In 2007, Cork Library issued a downloadable pdf translation by Séamus Ó Coigligh of Evgeniya Aleksandrovna Taratuta‘s 1957 Russian book, Our Friend Ethel Lilian Boole/Voynich.

Select Publications:

Of Interest:

Ethel Lilian Boole Voynich had four sisters:

Film adaptions of Ethel Voynich’s The Gadfly: