Do I have a problem with the fact that the Internet appears to have a machine continuously cranking out second-rate stories about the Voynich Manuscript? No, not really – an “unreadable historical manuscript” presses many of the cultural buttons left exposed by large numbers of mainstream Netizens.
What does annoy me, however, is that virtually every VMs account ever written fails to come close to grasping the complex (and actually very interesting, I suspect) nature and character of poor old Wilfrid Michael Voynich (WMV) himself. It’s rather like reading a five-line wartime biography of Winston Churchill and expecting that to suffice for everything else he ever did: but what about the rest of Voynich’s life?
In many ways, you have to understand that WMV is doubly occulted: on one side, he’s forever in the shadow of his accursed manuscript, while on the other side, he’s in the shadow of his blessèd wife Ethel. Though he could charm the birds down from the trees (and, more importantly for him, the books down off unwilling shelves) in eighteen-ish languages, he didn’t leave a substantial written record for biographers to work with. Ultimately, do we really know much of importance about Voynich? I think the honest answer would be ‘no’.
For example, I don’t think we have a clue about his sexual orientation: family lore has it that Ethel was attracted more to women than to men, and (allegedly) lived with Anne Nill in New York as a couple for decades, yet WMV and ELV were also notably a devoted couple prior to WMV’s death. Did they initially marry for love, for revolutionary support, for reasons of practicality, or for some other reason? Is it just me, or do you also hate it when you know that the 10% you know about a subject is actually the least important 10%?
All of which musings were prompted by a nice email from historical researcher & writer Jackie Speel, who asked if I knew that Wilfrid Voynich’s naturalization papers were in the National Archive. (“HO 144/751/117022”, to be precise). Ummm: no, I didn’t – but thanks very much for pointing this out! 🙂
It’s a good find – but I suspect that the real archival pay dirt would be WMV’s Special Branch file. Circa 1900, there was a lot of terrorist paranoia (sounds familiar?): the Special Irish Branch had only recently morphed into Special Branch, and was now tracking Russian revolutionaries and dissidents in London as well as Irish republicans. Andrew Cook’s (2002) Ace of Spies has a nice bit of useful stuff on this period (particularly Chapter Two “The Man From Nowhere”) and on Ethel Voynich (mainly in Appendix One), if you haven’t already seen this. So, Wilfrid Voynich almost certainly had a Special Branch file on him and his links with Stepniak etc: but what did it say? Perhaps there’s a similar secret file on him in New York archives? I wish someone was looking for this stuff, I really do.