In E. Millicent Sowerby’s 1967 autobiography, Rare People and Rare Books, she gives us a wonderful insight into the world of bookselling in the 20th century. We are lucky that she includes a vivid description of her time with Wilfrid Voynich, his personality, and the workings of his concern just before WWI. Such descriptions are scarce, and when found, are often sketchy and inaccurate- such as Orioli’s (of Davis & Orioli, Booksellers) description of Voynich in his 1938 work, Adventures of a Bookseller. In contrast to this unfortunate case, Ms. Sowerby has done a great job in coloring out a seemingly accurate portrayal of Wilfrid, Ethel, and the many friends and associates who passed through the London offices.
And Sowerby is an impressive figure in her own right. She prepared the bibliography of the Thomas Jefferson collection for the Library of Congress, and before that, became the first woman in an expert workforce of an auction house, Sotheby’s. Her career in books spanned 30 years, including her stint with Voynich, Birkbeck College, Sotheby’s, The American Art Association, The New York Public Libary, the prestigious A. S. W. Rosenbach booksellers, and finally her magnum opus, the Jefferson Catalog for the LOC. She knows the field, and was a fortunate witness and recorder of what it was to live a life in this world. So it is with great interest that I read her chapter on Voynich, over and over again, to see what clues to his life and activities I can glean from it. And thanks to the modern internet, it becomes possible to fit Sowerby’s view of events against what we now know happened at her time, if maybe just out of reach of her understanding.
One such case is that of a mysterious “Mr. Philippovitch”. Sowerby relates that many different associates of the Voynich’s passed through the London office… various outcasts and possible revolutionary compatriots of Wilfrid, but this Philippovitch was a bit different: He was described by Voynich as the manager of his Florence branch, the Libraria Franceschini. This interested me most of all, because Voynich’s operations in that branch are somewhat clouded. He purchased it in 1908, left it by WWI, and it is unclear when he sold it (one account says about 1921). Considering it had over 500,000 items, for which we have no description, let alone any catalog, and the ultimate dispersal of which is unclear, I have been trying to find out anything I can about it. Certainly I was interested in finding out more about the branch manager, if I could.
My most recent attempt paid off: It turned out that Mr. Philippowitch is actually Tytus Filipowicz, a Polish national, and one of Voynich’s fellow anti-Tsarist revolutionaries. It was the version of his name that confused me, and as you will see, may have confused Ms. Sowerby also, who seems unaware of the man’s other accomplishments outside of bookstore manager and Revolutionary foot soldier. In fact, he became the first Polish ambassador to the United States.
But Sowerby’s knowledge of the man was reliant on what Wilfrid was willing to share with her. He was understandably secretive about his associates from that part of his life… the underground Revolutionary side of his life… and Filipowicz was a case in point. When Millicent had asked Wilfrid if she could go to Florence and catalog the Libraria’s books, considering it a potentially fantastic adventure, he refused her. And the excuse he used was Filiopwicz, “… he gave me as his chief reason that I should inevitably fall in love with his manager, and he with me!”. What Wilfrid failed to mention was that Filipowicz was actually married at the time (about 1911), and had been since 1908, and that his wife was actually in Florence during this time! But it seems, to poor innocent Ms. Sowerby, as she says “As I was young and unmarried, I could not see any objection to this, but Mr. Voynich was adamant”, the idea that anyone would suggest the possibility that a married man might become her love-interest had not occurred to her.
And when she did meet Tytus, she was somewhat wowed by him. She tells us, “When I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Philippovitch I quite saw the point. He was definitely one of the most fascinating men I have ever met. Tall, handsome, with charming manners, and moreover the Manager of a rare book shop in Florence– what more could anyone want.” Well, if she knew, I would guess she would have wanted a single man.
Years later, by my estimate about 1914/15, Millicent was at a party in London. She had not been an employ of Voynich’s for a couple of years, but at the party were Mr. & Mrs. Garland. Herbert Garland was manager of the London office, while Wilfrid was in New York City. She still had Filiopowicz on her mind, and asked Mrs. Garland about him, “After talking about him for some time, she took me aback somewhat by saying, ‘I wonder how she is and the baby'”. It was explained to her that Filipowicz had married “a Polish girl who in a burst of enthusiasm had shot a high Russian official. She had been rescued from the resulting predicament by an Austrian gentleman, who had made a ‘white marriage’ with her, thus giving her Austrian citizenship.”
Of course now it was possible to learn who this “Polish girl” was, and I was even more impressed by her story than Millicent was: She was Wanda Krahelska-Filipowicz, code name “Alinka”: Polish revolutionary fighter, would-be assassin, writer, editor, entrepreneurial publisher, and later a hero of WWII, as a pivotal member of Zagota, assisting in the escape of many Jews from Warsaw. After the War, she was active in the Warsaw reconstruction efforts.
Millicent got a few things wrong in relating these stories, and part of my interest was in trying to determine why that was. There can be many such reasons for this, in cases like this: Reluctance of the relater’s sources to reveal details, for one reason or another; a long passage of time between their being told the story to when they finally put it down on paper; and possibly, in some cases, a personal reason on the part of the relator to omit or embellish facts on their own. I get the sense from her book, though, that Millicent was not the type to shape an account to her own purposes. She seemed a very sincere, forthright narrator to her understanding of events. So I looked at the discrepancies, and tried to determine how they may have happened.
As for the belief that Wanda Filipowicz “… in a burst of enthusiasm had shot a high Russian official”, she was wrong with the “shot” part. Wanda, along with two associates, had actually dropped three bombs from a balcony onto the motorcade of one Georgi Skalon, who survived. No doubt she was “enthusiastic”, however: She was of course filled with hatred for the Russians, for both patriotic and personal reasons, not the least of which her previous husband had been tortured at their hands. And once released, he committed suicide. And one can imagine that while being told of her attempting an assassination, by Mrs. Garland, Millicent may have assumed a gun, and not bombs, were used.
As for Tytus Filipowicz, there are to me more troubling implications to her errors, but not with the fine Ms. Sowerby herself. Well, in the case of an earlier story about Tytus, that he had to be spirited away to the Continent by Mr. Garland and Mr. Voynich, in order to avoid extradition from England by the Russian police, she told of his joining the “Austrian Legion”. In point of fact, he, “In 1914–1915, he fought in the Polish Fifth Infantry Regiment of the Polish Legions.” I wrote to my friend Greg Stachowski, who is well-versed in the military history of Europe, to see why there might be this discrepancy. His explanation clears it up,
“… the Polish Legions were established by Pilsudski in 1914 in the Austrian-controlled partition of Poland. Nominally they were an independent unit of the Austrian army, hence Sowerby’s mistake (she probably wasn’t all that aware of the details, and in the 60s in the Cold War it was not something the Soviets particularly publicized).”
But then I come to the difficult problem of Voynich telling Sowerby she could not go to Florence, because she and Filiopwicz would fall in love, and not, apparently, telling her that he was married. And, also not informing her that this unnamed wife was actually in Florence, while he was supposedly the manager of his bookstore there. Wanda Filipowicz was, “… since 1911 in the Florentine Academy of Fine Arts. 30 May in Florence in 1913 was godmother Monica , the daughter of Stefan Żeromski. In Florence, she and her husband representative of the Temporary Confederated Independence.”
But there is more to the story than this simplistic admonition from Wilfrid, and so in understanding the situation, I can speculate on a possible motivation to the deceit on his part. First of all, in calling Mr. Filiopwicz his “manager” of his Libraria, I think is downplaying the man’s larger roles. For one thing, before, during and after the time Filipowicz was in Florence, supposedly “managing a bookstore”, he was actually writing. He wrote, “Poland and Autonomy” in 1907; “Political Dreams” in 1909; “The Problems of Progress” in 1910; “Confidential Documents of the British Government concerning the Insurrection in Poland 1863” in 1914. But Millicent, it seems, did not know this. She did not know much about Filiopowicz, trusting Voynich and Garland for her sources, and, I think, not making a connection between her “Philippovitch” and “Filipowicz” by herself, or she would have colored out her description with his other, many, accomplishments. Certainly she would have been interested to learn that “her man” had become the Polish Ambassador, and may have been in Washington D.C. while she was working at the Library of Congress.
In my opinion, these anomalies are because of an attempt to keep her from poking around Florence, and have more to do with the possible, actual, role of the Libraria, than with any worries Voynich would have had about Tytus Filipowicz himself. The thing is, before Voynich purchased the store in 1908, it had been a working enterprise for decades, under its founder, Franceschini. And as such, it was not simply a quirky little bookstore (as Helen Zimmern attempted to portray it, and its founder, in her article), but a meeting place for left-wing activists and intellectuals. I have to wonder if its role as such continued under the auspices of Wilfrid Voynich, and that his reluctance to allow his unknowing Millicent Sowerby to be privy to such operations… which she surely would have been, working long hours there, digging through the mountains of interesting items.
That is, I think his ruse was to protect the Libraria as a Revolutionary operations center, a meeting house for activists, and maybe, a safe-house of sorts. And I do muse on an even darker, more secret use of this establishment, which is so far only the loosest of theoretical germs in my mind. This is of course all speculation on my part, and part of a much larger story I’ve been accumulating information for, and for which I think this little innocent and interesting anecdote our wonderful and trusting Millicent Sowerby has preserved for us. It is, to me, a “toe in the door” of what was really going on there. If not for her, that is, we would have no clue about Voynich, nor his relationship with Tytus and Wanda Filipowicz, nor their relationship with the Libraria. And I think Wilfrid Voynich would have liked it to stay that way.