Many years ago, when I read  this book, it made sharp impression on me. Now, “The Gadfly” is one of  my favorite book.

“The Gadfly” is a novel by Ethel Lilian Voynich. Published in 1897 , set in 1840s Italy under the dominance of Austria, a time of tumultuous revolt and uprisings. The story centers on the life of the protagonist, Arthur Burton, as a member of the Youth movement, and his antagonist, Padre Montanelli. A thread of a tragic relationship between Arthur and his love Gemma simultaneouslt runs through the story. It is a story of faith, disillusionment, revolution, romance and heroism.


The book is primarily concerned with the culture of revolution and revolutionaries. Arthur, the Gadfly, is an embodiment of the tragic romantic hero, who comes of age and  returns from abandonment to discover his true state in the world and fight against the injustices of the current one. Gemma, his lover, and Padre Montanelli, his Priest, show various forms of love via their tragic relations with the focal character of Arthur: religious, romantic and family. These emotions are compared with  those which Arthur finds and shows as a revolutionary.  The relationship between religious and revolutionary feelings is particulary drawn on. This is made particulary explicit at the climax of the book where sacred descriptions intertwine with reflections on the Gadfly’s fate. It is debatable to what extent an allegorical comparison can be drawn between the Gadfly and Jesus.


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 was a significant figure not only on the  late Victorian literary scene but also in Russian emigre circles. Lockhart claims that Reilly and Voynich had a sexual liaison and voyaged to Italy together. During this scenic tarriance, 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  Reilly, disputes Lockhart’s romanticized version of such events to be doubtful and counters instead that Reilly was perhaps informing on Voynich’s radical, pro-emigre activities to William Melville of the Metropolitian Police Special Branch.