Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Gadfly by Ethel Lilian Voynich

The romance of revolution
The Gadfly, published in 1897, is a novel by Irish author Ethel Lilian Voynich. The story takes place in Italy during the 1840s, in the period known as the Risorgimento, when Italy was under occupation by Austria. Despite its author and subject matter, the book was never a big hit in Ireland or Italy, but because of its leftist revolutionary themes it enjoyed an immense popularity and sold millions of copies in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

The novel opens at a theological seminary in Pisa, where English student Arthur Burton is studying with his mentor, Padre Montanelli. The teacher considers the young man one of his finest pupils, and the two enjoy a close relationship. Their peaceful monastic existence is shattered, however, when Arthur confesses to the padre that he wants to abandon his studies in order to fight for the Italian resistance against Austria. From that point forward, the plot of The Gadfly is difficult to summarize without spoiling, though most of the “surprises” are foreshadowed by Voynich far in advance. The plot eventually moves to Florence to focus on the subversive activities of an underground cell of political agitators plotting the revolution.

The Gadfly, to which the title refers, is the pen name of a writer for the revolutionary cause. This mysterious adventurer from South America pens propaganda in the form of scathing satire. As in The Count of Monte Cristo, The Scarlet Pimpernel, or The Mark of Zorro, the secret identity of the Gadfly is painfully obvious from the start. It’s hard to believe that Voynich would really think her audience couldn’t see the truth, yet throughout the book she treats this detail as if it were a secret. The exasperated reader waits for the other characters in the book to discover what he or she has already long known. The result is that those characters come across as not very smart, like Lois Lane and company not realizing that Superman is Clark Kent with glasses.

The Gadfly often reads like a manual for how revolutionaries should conduct themselves, which probably explains its popularity during periods of radical unrest. The character of the Gadfly serves as an example of how to respond irreverently to torture, how to scoff intelligently at the church, how to nobly undertake suicide missions for the cause, and so on. The tone of the book has a romantic pomposity that resembles a propaganda poster from a Communist regime. There is another side to Romanticism, however, that doesn’t really work with this subject matter. Despite the Gadfly’s strident and steadfast devotion to the cause, he is also hopelessly histrionic in his emotional outbursts. While fighting for the cause of a nation, he spends an awful lot of time crying over his personal problems. The climax of the book is a ridiculously overwrought tearjerker, like the overly protracted death scene of an annoyingly melodramatic opera. Also, though the Gadfly spouts plenty of potent anti-church rhetoric and atheist invective, the book is loaded with so much Christian imagery it’s difficult to figure out which side of that argument Voynich is really on. By making the Gadfly a Christ figure, aren’t you simultaneously glorifying Christ?

I love a good freedom fighter story as much as anyone, but this one could have used less romance and more realism. Still, it is an interesting piece of radical fiction, and if nothing else the overly theatrical bits lend a bit of Victorian Era kitsch value. Though millions of Russians may differ with me, The Gadfly is no masterpiece, but it’s an OK read for left-leaning readers who are into this sort of thing.
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