It has been used to sell everything from Bass Ale to tote bags. You can find it on throw pillows, candles, mugs, jigsaw puzzles, and t-shirts.
The National Portrait Gallery in London offers it as a postcard. It’s one of their perennial bestsellers.
I think it’s fair to say that the world is in love with this photograph of the young Virginia Woolf.
Is it because it somehow captures for the eye the beauty that fills the pages of her novels? Does it represent an iconic youthfulness? Or are we just ancient Greeks in our hearts, who believe that outward beauty reflects inner virtue?
The image above is a 1910 studio portrait taken when she was a twenty-eight-year-old aspiring writer and the unmarried Virginia Stephen. It is a picture of her in blackface makeup and a theatrical costume. She and her friends are about to hoax the British Navy.
A few hours after this picture was taken, the group would board the Navy’s most famous battleship, the HMS Dreadnought, posing as an important delegation of African princes. The ship’s captain would give them an official tour. And when it was all over, the officers wouldn’t even know they had been hoaxed.
But when one of the pranksters leaked the story to the press a week later, all hell broke loose.
Others were shocked that the nation’s most celebrated warship could be breached by pranksters. What did that mean for diplomacy, maritime prestige, national security? Members of Parliament were up in arms. Woolf’s friends and relatives chastised her.
And yet–I know this seems impossible to believe today–no one called her out for putting on blackface.
How on earth, you’re probably wondering, did this young anti-imperialist woman take part in such an ugly stunt?
It was just this question that I was trying to answer when I started writing The Girl Prince: Virginia Woolf, Race and the Dreadnought Hoax.
During the dozen or so years that I’ve spent thinking about this book, I learned that it is impossible to tell the story of this bigoted hoax without considering the lives of real Black people in Britain.
When I looked beyond Woolf’s immediate circle, I found fascinating Black lives adjoining her own. These people lived in her neighborhood, were fellow writers, even had connections to her family history.
There was so much to discover!
Although I found more than a dozen African, Caribbean, and Black British lives that edged and echoed Woolf’s own, here are three that I found especially interesting.
In 1868, the seven-year-old Ethiopian Prince Alamayou was ripped from his homeland and brought to Britain. He was famously photographed by Virginia Woolf’s great aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron.
The aspiring writer Augustus Merriman-Labor left Sierra Leone for London seeking literary fame. He moved to Bloomsbury in 1904, the same year as Virginia Woolf and her family settled in Gordon Square.
My writer’s journey for this book started with a disturbing picture of Virginia Woolf in blackface. During the course of my literary travels, I was lucky enough to hear a lecture from the esteemed British historian David Olusoga who argued that Black history is inseparable from British history.
I hope that I have succeeded in writing a book that takes this lesson to heart.
If I have, then you will find in the pages of The Girl Prince a fresh portrait of Woolf and her world, one that brings to light not just new facets of her life, but clear views of Black lives that have been invisible for far too long.
If you are in Billings this weekend, I’ll be hosting a party to celebrate the publication of The Girl Prince.
Billings Public Library Saturday
1:00 – 2:00
There will be books, giveaways, food, and fun. I’ll even give a presentation and reading from the book.
I’d love to see you if you are in town!