George Walford: Cloak and Dagger

The Gadfly, by E. L. Voynich [1]

Kipling wrote of the three-decker novel that it carried weary people to the Islands of the Blest. The Gadfly heads from oppression towards freedom yet it, too, carries the romantic cargo; not ‘stolen wills for ballast and a crew of missing heirs,’ but paternity unacknowledged, young love frustrated, a hero who returns unrecognised, wigs, false beards, riding cloaks, prison bars to file through, a tunnel with a secret opening, and those cooperative police spies who make themselves so easy to recognise – they seem almost to be wearing some sort of police spies’ uniform. Like all well-equipped revolutionaries these have ready in advance the plans of the fortress in which their leader is to be imprisoned, and a guard willing to help in the escape.

The cover illustration on the paperback reprint says a good deal; the obligatory gun has a rose as fashion accessory, while the manicured hand holding it rules out any idea that these revolutionaries might be manual workers. No nonsense about proletarians here; the hero is the son of a canon who becomes cardinal, and the servants who help the story along take little part in revolutionary activities. Although ‘the people’ are reported to engage in assassination they do so in a dull, mechanical way; the blaze of revolutionary violence (quite a different thing from just killing people) is to save them from the need to do this.

The story takes place in the Risorgimento, aiming to throw off the Austrian yoke and unite Italy; to be unpleasantly blunt, a nationalist movement. Nobody actually gets assassinated, and although the hero has a rough time in early life, living as servant to some low types and as butt for crude jokes in a freak show, all that takes place off stage. (His real troubles come later).

In literature as in life, each epoch remains blind to its own limitations; the devices that drive our thrillers will look as crude in a hundred years’ time. First published in 1897 (in America since Heinemann feared public reaction to it in England) E. L. Voynich’s revolutionary romance comes off surprisingly well. The sensitivity and intelligence of the writing overcome the creaky plot, and something deeper also helps. Although accepted as a revolutionary novel, it says little about revolution; a few references to freedom, to an intended popular rising, to smuggling weapons and to police surveillance, and that’s about it. The author shows the hero dying for his beliefs without making it at all clear what those beliefs are; he seems to be displacing, onto the authorities he attacks, his resentment of the father who refuses to acknowledge him. The book is emphatically a novel, not a disguised political treatise; it presents us with studies of individual people, the development of their characters and their personal relations, rather than an account of social movements. It operates for the most part on the eidostatic level, where love and loyalty and family bulk large, and this accounts for the warm response it arouses.

[1] Frogmore, St. Albans: Mayflower Books Ltd. 1973.

from Ideological Commentary 63, February 1994.