The Gadfly is a novel by Irish-born British writer Ethel Voynich, published in 1897 (United States, June; Great Britain, September of the same year), set in 1840s Italy under the dominance of Austria, a time of tumultuous revolt and uprisings.[1] The story centres on the life of the protagonist, Arthur Burton. A thread of a tragic relationship between Arthur and his love, Gemma, simultaneously runs through the story. It is a tale of faith, disillusionment, revolution, romance, and heroism.

The Gadfly
«The Gadfly» cover.jpg
First version of cover
AuthorEthel Voynich
CountryUnited States
PublisherH. Holt
Publication date
June 1897
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback)
Pages373 pp (first edition hardcover)


The book, set during the Italian Risorgimento, is primarily concerned with the culture of revolution and revolutionaries. Arthur, the eponymous Gadfly, embodies 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. The landscape of Italy, in particular the Alps, is a pervading focus of the book, with its often lush descriptions of scenery conveying the thoughts and moods of characters.


Arthur Burton, an English Catholic, travels to Italy to study to be a priest. He discovers radical ideas, renounces Catholicism, fakes his death and leaves Italy. While away he suffers great hardship, but returns with renewed revolutionary fervour. He becomes a journalist, expounding radical ideas in brilliant satirical tracts published under the pseudonym "the gadfly". The local authorities are soon dedicated to capturing him. Gemma, his lover, and Padre Montanelli, his Priest (and also secretly his biological father), show various forms of love via their tragic relations with the focal character of Arthur: religious, romantic, and family. The story compares these emotions to those Arthur experiences as a revolutionary, particularly drawing on the relationship between religious and revolutionary feelings. This is especially explicit at the climax of the book, where sacred descriptions intertwine with reflections on the Gadfly's fate. Eventually Arthur is captured by the authorities and executed by a firing squad. Montanelli also dies, having lost his faith and his sanity.

It is debatable to what extent an allegorical comparison can be drawn between the Gadfly and Jesus.[citation needed]


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. Lockhart claims that Reilly and Voynich had a sexual liaison and voyaged to Italy together. During this dalliance, 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.[2] In 2004, writer Andrew Cook suggested that Reilly may have been reporting on Voynich and her political activities to William Melville of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch.[3] In 2016, new evidence surfaced from archived communication between Anne Fremantle, who attempted a biography of Ethel Voynich, and a relative of Ethel's on the Hinton side. The evidence demonstrates that a liaison of some sort took place between Reilly and her in Florence, 1895.[4]


With the central theme of the book being the nature of a true revolutionary, the reflections on religion and rebellion proved to be ideologically suitable and successful. The Gadfly was exceptionally popular in the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, and Iran, exerting a large cultural influence. In the Soviet Union, The Gadfly was compulsory reading and the top best seller; indeed, by the time of Voynich's death, The Gadfly is estimated to have sold 2,500,000 copies in the Soviet Union alone.[5] Voynich was unaware of the novel's popularity, and did not receive royalties, until visited by a diplomat in 1955.[6] In China, several publishers translated the book, and one of them (China Youth Press) sold more than 2,050,000 copies. It was banned, however, after the Sino-Soviet split.[7][circular reference] Irish writer Peadar O'Donnell recalls the novel's popularity among Republican prisoners in Mountjoy Prison during the Irish Civil War.[8]

The Russian composer Mikhail Zhukov turned the book into an opera The Gadfly (Овод, 1928). In 1955, the Soviet director Aleksandr Faintsimmer adapted the novel into a film of the same title (Russian: Ovod) for which Dmitri Shostakovich wrote the score. The Gadfly Suite is an arrangement of selections from Shostakovich's score by the composer Levon Atovmian. A second opera The Gadfly was composed by Soviet composer Antonio Spadavecchia.

On the other hand, in Italy, where the plot takes place during the Italian Unification, the novel is totally neglected:[9] it was translated into Italian as late as in 1956 and was never reprinted: Il figlio del cardinale (literally, The Son of the Cardinal). A new edition, carrying the same title, came out in 2013.

Theatre adaptationsEdit

Radio adaptationEdit

  • 1989. The Gadfly, BBC Radio 4, Saturday Night Theatre.[12]

Opera, ballet, musical adaptationsEdit

Film adaptationsEdit

Other adaptationsEdit

  • 1976. Bögöly (Vihar Itália felett) (The Gadfly (Storm over Italy)), a condensed comic book adaptation which concentrated on the adventurous aspects of the novel, by Tibor Cs. Horváth and Attila Fazekas; published in Hungarian, and subsequently in Polish as Szerszeń (Przygody Artura i Gemmy) (The Hornet (The Adventures of Arthur and Gemma)).


  1. ^ See Voynich, Ethel Lillian (1897). The Gadfly (1 ed.). New York: Henry Holt & Company. Retrieved 13 July 2014. via
  2. ^ Robin Bruce Lockhart, Reilly: Ace of Spies; 1986, Hippocrene Books, ISBN 0-88029-072-2.
  3. ^ Andrew Cook, Ace of Spies: The True Story of Sidney Reilly, 2004, Tempus Publishing, ISBN 0-7524-2959-0. Page 39.
  4. ^ Gerry Kennedy, The Booles and the Hintons, Atrium Press, July 2016 pp 274-276
  5. ^ Cork City Libraries Archived 18 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine provides a downloadable PDF[dead link] of Evgeniya Taratuta's 1957 biographical pamphlet Our Friend Ethel Lilian Boole/Voynich, translated from the Russian by Séamus Ó Coigligh. The pamphlet gives some idea of the Soviet attitude toward Voynich.
  6. ^ Gray, Anne (2007). The World of Women in Classical Music. pp. 886–7.
  7. ^ zh:牛虻 (小说)
  8. ^ O’Donnell, Peadar The Gates Flew Open (1932) Ch. 14
  9. ^ S. Piastra, Luoghi reali e luoghi letterari: Brisighella in The Gadfly di Ethel Lilian Voynich, “Studi Romagnoli” LVII, (2006), pp. 717–735 (in Italian); S. Piastra, Il romanzo inglese di Brisighella: nuovi dati su The Gadfly di Ethel Lilian Voynich, “Studi Romagnoli” LIX, (2008), pp. 571–583 (in Italian); A. Farsetti, S. Piastra, The Gadfly di Ethel Lilian Voynich: nuovi dati e interpretazioni, “Romagna Arte e Storia” 91, (2011), pp. 41–62 (in Italian).
  10. ^ Therese Bonney & R. F. Rattray, Bernard Shaw, a Chronicle, Leagrave Press, Luton, England, 1951, p.135.
  11. ^ Los Angeles Herald, Volume 604, Number 8, 8 October 1899, p.13
  12. ^ "Saturday-Night Theatre: The Gadfly". BBC Genome. BBC. Retrieved 17 April 2020.

External linksEdit