When Ethel Met Sidney

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I have always been interested in translations, for they can affect one nation’s view of another. Thanks to Charles Dickens, Sherlock Holmes and a weepy film called Waterloo Road, for most Chinese, London remains eternally wreathed in fog, never mind the Clean Air Acts. And translation can ensure that books long forgotten in their native place continue to thrive elsewhere.

For me, one of the most extraordinary examples of lasting success abroad and oblivion at home is the 1897 thriller The Gadfly. Written by Ethel Lillian Voynich, it achieved a respectable success in England and America but became an enormous bestseller in Russia (first published in 1898, 5 million copies sold, in 65 editions) and then throughout the Communist world. It was dramatized by George Bernard Shaw and filmed twice in Russia, the second time with a score written by Shostakovich. Fiercely anti-clerical, sometimes overly theological, it nevertheless cracks along like an Errol Flynn film.

The story begins sedately in a theological seminary in Pisa in 1833 where Arthur, a young Englishman, is sorting out Canon Montanelli’s papers. The Canon addresses Arthur as ‘Dear little one’ and puts his hand on the boy’s shoulder rather too often for this twenty-first century reader. Arthur, from a British shipping family long established in Leghorn, is a troubled soul, distressed by the recent death of his sad, widowed mother, estranged from his older stepbrothers, and wondering whether he should join the illegal political movement called Young Italy.

Arthur is also suffering from unrequited love for Jim (real name Jennifer) a childhood playmate, who has another suitor, Giovanni Bolla, a fellow-member of Young Italy. Jim is determined that violent struggle is the only way forward; Arthur is more uncertain, and his confusion between religion and politics, love and jealousy, leads him to bare his soul with dangerous candour in the confessional. Father Cardi, a slippery prelate, betrays his secrets, and various members of Young Italy are arrested. When Arthur is released, his stepbrother reveals the fact that Canon Montanelli is Arthur’s real father, which is an unwelcome discovery for Arthur but at least explains the endearments. Distraught at this news and at the fact that Jim believes he has betrayed his comrades, Arthur slips out of Leghorn and makes for South America.

Part two opens in Florence, twenty years later. Jim, who thinks that Arthur has drowned himself because she accused him of betrayal, is now a widow, but she continues her revolutio

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About the contributor

Frances Wood is lucky to work in the British Library, where pursuing Ethel Voynich’s life was made easier by access to her mother’s books, her novels, articles in History Today, a Russian biography and the assistance of Chris Thomas of the Slavonic section.

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