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The Russian Best-Seller: The Gadfly

In 1897 The Gadfly was published in English by Ethel Lilian Voynich - ‘E.L.V.’ to her friends. Anne Fremantle introduces this revolutionary novel, set in nineteenth-century Italy, which has sold 5 million copies in Russia.

Visitors to Moscow may be surprised to find that one best-selling book in the Soviet Union is by a New Yorker, Ethel Lilian Voynich, who died in New York in 1960 after living there for forty years. Her novel, The Gadfly, was first published in the United States, though its author was English, and was known until her marriage as Lily Boole.

‘Most books are as dead as mutton eighteen months after they are born,’ George Bernard Shaw wrote to Wilfred Voynich, Lily Boole’s husband, from 10 Adelphi Terrace on December 2nd, 1907. Nothing could be less dead, however, almost three quarters of a century after its publication, than Ethel Lilian Voynich’s novel The Gadfly.

It always sold extremely well, from its first appearance in the United States in June 1897 and in England that September; before 1920 eighteen editions had appeared. But its most phenomenal success had always been in Russia, where it has sold over 5,000,000 copies in 107 editions in twenty-two of the languages spoken in the U.S.S.R.

There have also been sixteen English-language editions in Russia, and since its translation into Chinese in 1954, it has sold over 1,000,000 copies there in a comic-book format. Translations are also popular in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, both the Republics of Germany, Holland, Hungary, Latvia, Outer Mongolia, Poland and Romania.

A dramatic version of The Gadfly has never been ‘off the boards’ in Russia since the 1920s. Two Russian films have been made of the novel, the first, a silent one, in 1928; the second, in colour with screenplay by Gabrilovich and music by Dmitri Shostakovich, in 1955, won an award at Cannes.

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