Ethel Lilian Boole was born on 11 May 1864, at Lichfield Cottage, Blackrock, Ballintemple, Cork, the youngest daughter to the mathematician George Boole (father of Boolean logic), and the feminist philosopher Mary Everest, who was the niece of George Everest and a writer for Crank, an early-20th-century periodical. Her father died six months after she was born. Her mother returned to her native England with her daughters, and was able to live off a small government pension until she was appointed librarian at Queen's College, London. When she was eight, Ethel contracted erysipelas, a disease associated with poor sanitation. Her mother decided to send her to live in Lancashire with her brother, believing that it would be good for her health. Described as "a religious fanatic and sadist", who regularly beat his children, he apparently forced Ethel to play the piano for hours on end. Ethel returned to London at the age of ten. She became withdrawn, dressing in black and calling herself "Lily".
At the age of eighteen, she gained access to a legacy. This allowed her to study piano and musical composition at the Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin, which she attended between 1882 and 85. During this period she became increasingly attracted to revolutionary politics. Back in London she learned Russian from Sergei Kravchinski, known as Stepniak who encouraged her to go to Russia. From 1887 to 1889 she worked as a governess in St. Petersburg, where she stayed with Kravchinski's sister-in-law, Preskovia Karauloff. Through her, she became associated with the revolutionary Narodniks. After her return to the UK, she settled in London, where she became involved in pro-Revolutionary activity. With Kravchinski she founded the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom, and helped to edit Free Russia, the Narodniks's English-language journal.
In 1890 she met Michał Habdank-Wojnicz, a revolutionary who had escaped from Siberia. Soon he also became Ethel Boole's life-partner. By 1895, they were living together and she was calling herself Mrs. Voynich. They married in 1902. In 1904 he anglicised his name to Wilfrid Michael Voynich and became an antiquarian book dealer, giving his name eventually to the Voynich manuscript.
In 1897 she published The Gadfly, which was an immediate international success. She published three more novels Jack Raymond (1901), Olive Latham (1904) and An Interrupted Friendship (1910), but none matched the popularity of her first book.
The Voyniches emigrated to the United States in 1920, after Wilfred had moved the main base of his book business to New York. She concentrated more on music from this point on, working in a music school, but she continued her writing career as a translator, translating from Russian, Polish and French. A final novel, Put off thy Shoes was published in 1945.
Voynich was unaware of the vast sales of The Gadfly in the Soviet Union until she was visited in New York by a Russian diplomat in 1955, who told her how highly regarded she was in the country. The following year Adlai Stevenson secured an agreement for the payment of $15,000 royalties to her.
According to the British journalist Robin Bruce Lockhart, Sidney Reilly – a Russian-born adventurer and secret agent employed by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – met Ethel Voynich in London in 1895. Lockhart, whose father, R.H. Bruce Lockhart, was an agent of the SIS and knew Reilly, claims that Reilly and Voynich had a sexual liaison and voyaged to Italy together. During their romance Reilly is said to have "bared his soul to his mistress", and revealed to her the story of his strange adventures in South America. After their brief affair, the story goes, Voynich published The Gadfly, whose central character Arthur Burton was based on Reilly. Lockhart cites no evidence for any of his claims. Andrew Cook, an historian and noted biographer of Reilly, convincingly refutes Lockhart's account. He suggests instead that Reilly may have been reporting on Voynich and her political activities to William Melville of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch. There is, in fact, no evidence that Reilly ever met Ethel Voynich or her husband Wilfrid. New evidence, however, obtained from archived communication between Anne Fremantle, who attempted a biography of Ethel Voynich, and a relative of Ethel's on the Hinton side, demonstrates that a liaison of some sort took place between Reilly and her in Florence,1895.
She is most famous for her first 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 bestseller 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 and had been made into two Russian movies, first in 1928 in Soviet Georgia (Krazana) and then again in 1955.
The 1955 film of the novel, by the Soviet director Aleksandr Fajntsimmer is noted for the fact that composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote the score (see The Gadfly Suite). Along with some other excerpts, the Romance movement has since become very popular. Shostakovich's Gadfly theme was also used in the 1980s, in the BBC TV series Reilly, Ace of Spies. In 1980 the novel was adapted again as a TV miniseries The Gadfly, featuring Sergei Bondarchuk as Father Montanelli.
Voynich's other novels are related to the Gadfly, in that they extend the narrative to cover the lives of the protagonist's family and ancestors. Her last novel Put off thy Shoes is a "lengthy, multi-generational chronicle" set in the 18th century and deals with the Gadfly's British ancestors.
Voynich began composing music around 1910. She joined the Society of Women Musicians during World War I. After she and her husband moved to New York, she devoted herself much more to music, creating many adaptations and transcriptions of existing works. In 1931 she published an edited volume of Chopin's letters. From 1933 to 1943 she worked at the Pius X School of Liturgical Music in Manhattan. While there she composed a number of cantatas and other works that were performed at the college, including Babylon, Jerusalem, Epitaph in Ballad Form and The Submerged City. She also researched the history of music, compiling detailed commentaries on music of various eras. Most of her music remains unpublished and is held at the Library of Congress. Recent evaluation in 2005 of the cantata 'Babylon' by an eminent English composer was not very favourable. 'The general impression is of amateurism and gaucheness'.
A minor planet 2032 Ethel discovered in 1970 by Soviet astronomer Tamara Mikhailovna Smirnova is named after her.Stories from Garshin (1893)
The Gadfly (1897)
Jack Raymond (1901)
Olive Latham (1904)
An Interrupted Friendship (Russian "Овод в изгнании" (meaning "The Gadfly in exile") (1910)
Put Off Thy Shoes (1945)