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Wilfrid Voynich grew up in Poland as the scion of a minor noble family. He became a socialist and a revolutionary. Arrested by the Russian police, he served three years of forced labor in Siberia. He escaped to Peking and made his way to London, where he became an antiquarian book dealer.

In 1912, Voynich visited the Villa Mondragone, a former papal residence, in the Alban Hills near Rome. Here he found a group of old manuscripts in a trunk and purchased them from the Jesuits who occupied the villa. Among the manuscripts was the mysterious book that bears his name today…

Wilfrid Michael Voynich

A distinguished-looking Voynich in his bookshop in London. Image source: Daily Mail.

The Voynich Affair: Chapter 2 

“Lynn, you’ve amassed more than six weeks of vacation time, and HR is getting antsy.” George Tennison paused to let that sink in. “I’m ordering you to take at least two weeks of vacation, and soon.”

“But we have scheduling for next year coming up, and strategic planning to be done, and budget— and didn’t you just tell us yesterday in the Chairs’ meeting that you want our hiring requests before the end of the month?” she argued. “I couldn’t possibly get away right now.”

“Nevertheless, you will. And that’s an order. I don’t want you burning out. Go somewhere far away. And leave instructions that you’re not to be contacted unless the apocalypse is forthcoming.” He hung up. Lynn stared into space for a few minutes. Then she slowly turned to a stack of mail on her desk, and slid a creamy card out of its stiff, heavy envelope. On the card was an invitation to a symposium in France, to be held at a chateau in Normandy in a month’s time. This particular piece of mail had been sitting on her desk for weeks now. She couldn’t afford the time to jet off to France, but somehow, she hadn’t yet had the heart to write the host and decline his kind invitation.

The symposium centered around a strange and unique Renaissance document known as the Voynich manuscript. For years now, Lynn had devoted her leisure hours to the study of this oddity, known as “the most mysterious manuscript in the world.” Almost every page of the small book, housed at Yale’s Beinecke library, included paintings in watercolor. The manuscript was incomplete, but only about seven pages were missing. The largest section contained rather clumsy and naïve botanical illustrations. None of the fantastical plants, however, could be conclusively identified.

Another section was full of cosmological and astrological diagrams, and yet another showed bizarre, cartoonish illustrations of naked women (their hair duly dressed in fifteenth-century style) wading through tubs of colored liquids, or emerging from networks of oddly shaped, vaguely anatomical-looking tubes. The final section was filled with numerous pictures of roots, stems and leaves, a sort of pharmacopeia, and included “recipes,” each set off by a star. Most perplexing of all, however, was the script, unique and still undeciphered. It appeared to be a kind of or cipher, but one that had remained stubbornly opaque since Wilfrid Voynich, a book dealer, discovered the manuscript in 1912. Some thought the Voynich document was a modern forgery, but recent carbon dating and other evidence placed it firmly in the early fifteenth century.

Lynn belonged to an international listserv of Voynich fanatics, people who took more than a casual interest in deciphering the text. The membership included scholars of the Renaissance and of alchemy, professional cryptographers from the CIA and other intelligence agencies, botanists, experts on pharmaceuticals, librarians who specialized in book conservation and dating, and linguists, among others. Some were odd, eccentric people who logged on to argue strenuously for bizarre theories, some were highly qualified experts who simply enjoyed a good puzzle, and the majority were somewhere in between. The discussions on the list, and in the small journal Voynich Bulletin, had a tendency to be entertainingly lively, and sometimes polemical. The discourse could best be described as quasi-academic, and no responsible Ph.D. advisor would allow a student to found his or her career on the Voynich manuscript, lest the student be labeled a crank.

Certain members rubbed each other the wrong way, and clashed repeatedly. Lynn herself had been arguing in slow motion with one T. C. West for at least three years now over whether the word divisions of the script corresponded to real words or had been modified as part of the cipher, whether the source language of the Voynich document was more likely to be an Eastern or Western European language (they at least agreed it was European, though some list members were convinced it was Chinese), and any number of other vexing questions. No matter what opinion Lynn expressed, she could bank on West disagreeing with it, often in very pungent terms.

Her descriptions of her clashes with West delighted Laura. “Who is this West character anyway?” she asked, the next time they had lunch at Revels, the local campus hangout. “Have you met anyone from the list in person?”

“I’ve only met Alessandra Contadino, who teaches English at Columbia. Most of the list members live in Europe. But as for West, he’s the Curator of the Hopkins Collection in New York. Hopkins was one of those robber barons who collected books during the gilded age, like J. P. Morgan.” J. Pierpont Morgan’s choice collection of rare books and manuscripts —including original manuscripts by Dickens, Thoreau, and Charlotte Brontë— had been preserved in his original library building on Madison Avenue and was open to the public.

Laura sighed in pleasure at the thought of these treasures. “I love the Morgan! They have Caxtons, Jensons, and three Gutenberg Bibles. And all kinds of oddities, like his collection of Mesopotamian cylinder seals. But I’ve not heard of the Hopkins collection. Have you been there?”

“No. It’s not a public museum, more of a research institution, though the collection is open to scholars and concentrates on scientific and medical books. I’ve never met West in person, but Alessandra has. In fact,” she said with a rueful laugh, “Alessandra told me that West mentioned me during their one conversation.”

“Really? What did he say?”

“He said that Professor Melton has feathers in her head.”

“Lovely. What does this West look like? Is he our age?”

“Alessandra didn’t say, and I’ve no idea. I tried to look him up on the web, but oddly enough, there’s not one image to be had anywhere.” Lynn thought of the Parnell English website, where her own picture was only one click away from the main page. There were other pictures of her on the internet, here and there— a book jacket photo, and albums by Facebook friends who made their pictures public. “I always imagine him as this crusty, crotchety but distinguished type with a halo of snowy hair and a neatly trimmed beard.”

“Ugh. That sounds like my nemesis, Mervyn Pargeter,” said Laura, speaking of a rival Pope scholar who’d tried to frame her for stealing rare books— ones that he himself had purloined. “I have a violently negative reaction to any man who bears the slightest resemblance to Colonel Sanders. And not just because I’m a vegetarian.”

“Well, I have this invitation to a special symposium on Voynich studies in a few weeks, and I’m tempted to go, but I haven’t decided. The host is Michel Mazarin, one of the list members, but he’s always been a bit weird. Some of his messages sound almost paranoid, and others are brilliant. Apparently he’s a scion of some wealthy French family and they own a chateau. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Voynich manuscript’s discovery, he’s invited twenty of the most active list members to the symposium, and everyone is going to stay at his home.”

Laura raised both eyebrows. “Are you insane? Of course you have to go! You’ve been studying the Voynich manuscript for as long as I can remember. And I happen to know that Tennison ordered you to take a vacation,” she added sternly. “So you’re going.” They enjoyed their veggie burgers and fries in silence for a few moments, contemplating the enticing prospect of traveling to France, and then Laura said brightly, “You’ll need some wonderful new clothes for the trip!”

Lynn laughed. “Is this your way of telling me that I look like hell?” she asked.

“Of course not,” said Laura in her loyal way. “But trust me, you’ll feel much better walking into that chateau if you have knockout clothes. And just think— you can wear heels now!”

That’s true, Lynn reflected. She and Richard were the same height, and he’d always hated it when she wore heels or platform shoes, especially if they were going to any function with the other partners in his law firm. While they were married, she even avoided putting her hair up, for fear that it might make her appear taller. These days, seeing so many confident young Amazons striding around campus, she herself no longer felt outlandishly tall, but she had reached her adult height of five foot eight before she was sixteen, in a generation whose average female height was three inches shorter. She had grown up feeling large, gawky and unlovely, especially given that her mother, Georgia, was a petite and slim five foot three. Like all mothers, Georgia Thibodeaux had the power to crush her adolescent daughter’s self esteem with a single thoughtless sentence. She’d said more than once that Lynn was “broad in the beam” like the women of her father’s family, and Lynn had remained self-conscious ever since about the width of her hips. Now, though, she was free to wear anything she wanted, and the additional height of a good pair of heels would make her seem more willowy.

“You’ve convinced me,” she told Laura, feeling a growing excitement. “I’ll go, and I’ll buy myself at least two pairs of heels, one to wear with suits and one for evening.”

“That’s the spirit,” said Laura. “I only wish I knew more about clothes, so I could go shopping with you.” These words sounded a bit forced, and Lynn laughed. Laura hated shopping in malls, and only bought clothes once or twice a year, except for purchases from vintage shops and Ebay. She also got her fashion advice from an antiquarian book dealer, much to Lynn’s secret amusement.

“Don’t worry, I won’t drag you along. Samantha’s a fashion blogger, remember? She knows more about clothes than both of us put together.” Samantha was the elder of Lynn’s two former stepdaughters, and she had a blog called Sam’s Catwalk that was so popular, she actually received sample products from many of the big players in the fashion industry, like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. She rarely wrote about these items, however, preferring to make her own discoveries.

Lynn’s stepmother duties had been relatively light, as Samantha and Tiffany’s mother had primary custody of the girls, and she mainly saw them during the summers and on holidays, plus the occasional long weekend. The girls lived in Philadelphia, only a short drive from Parnell and its university. Lynn decided right from the start that she would have nothing to do with disciplining them, and told Richard in no uncertain terms that he was the bad cop. Instead, she helped them with homework, took them shopping or to get their ears pierced (with their mother’s permission), and taught them to cook lasagna and good roast chicken. She had a special bond with Samantha, and she noticed that Samantha always came to her to ask the questions about puberty and sex that she was embarrassed to ask her mother. Like the scholar she was, Lynn responded by amassing a library of books on adolescence, contraception and human sexuality, including the classic Our Bodies, Ourselves and a guidebook on female orgasm. She’d had few enough orgasms with Richard, and she wanted Samantha to be aware of the possibilities before she tied herself down with a man who had no interest in his partner’s pleasure.

She herself didn’t get very far in the orgasm guide, turned off by its pictures of large, scary vibrators with electric cords. But she’d been quite taken with a book on sexual positions, and even suggested to Richard that they try making love doggie-style. When he agreed, Lynn found it unexpectedly enjoyable. She thought Richard would be turned on too by the novelty, but instead, he seemed to lose interest in sex. That was when she first began to suspect he was having an affair.

Eventually, Richard complained to her that Michelle, the girls’ mother, was incensed by their easy access to information about sex. Michelle, a conservative Christian, accused her of tempting the girls into promiscuity. After that, she refused to allow Sam or Tiff to take the books home— they could only consult the library at their father’s house.

Early on in their relationship, Samantha had asked if she could call Lynn “Mom.” Correctly recognizing this as a strategy by Sam to annoy her mother, Lynn refused the request, but reluctantly agreed in the end to be “Aunt Lynn.” Now that she and Richard were divorced and the girls had started at Penn, she didn’t have much contact with Tiffany, but Sam called her faithfully once a week, and they enjoyed spending time together.

Copyright 2104 by Linnet Moss

Notes: The Hopkins Collection, where Professor West works, is fictional. I based it on the Morgan library but gave it a different scholarly focus. In 2012, there was a symposium commemorating the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the Voynich manuscript. That’s how I got the idea for Lynn’s “symposium.”

Laura’s battle with rival Pope scholar Mervyn Pargeter is one of the plots lines in my London Broil trilogy.

The Villa Mondragone lies in the Alban Hills in a good winemaking area (Frascati). It is a former Papal residence and is now owned by the University of Rome II.


This is where Voynich uncovered the manuscript. Image source: Wikipedia.