An iconic writer.
A practical joke on the British Navy in blackface.
The Girl Prince: Virginia Woolf, Race
and the Dreadnought Hoax
If you’re like me, it’s almost impossible to imagine the legendary feminist, pacifist writer Virginia Woolf getting involved in a blackface practical joke on the British Navy. But she did.
About the Hoax
It was 1910, and she wasn’t yet Virginia Woolf. She was still Virginia Stephen, a twenty-eight-year-old aspiring writer who hadn’t yet published a book. Her younger brother Adrian and his friend Horace de Vere Cole were planning an outrageous prank on the most powerful maritime force in the world, and she wanted in on it. So on a drizzly day in February, she put on blackface, donned long ornate robes, and pretended to be an African prince. The stunt caused a sensation and made headlines around the world.
But how do we make sense of this bigoted blackface prank today?
In The Girl Prince, I weave together three important pieces of this story. I talk about the prank and its afterlife. I explore Woolf’s ideas about race and empire. But I also delve into the lives of Black people–from real princes to Caribbean writers and South African activists–and show how they were connected to Virginia Woolf, even though she may never have known them.
Black British Lives
You may be surprised to learn that Woolf’s Bloomsbury neighborhood was home to many Black people, some of whom would go on to play crucial roles in the dismantling of empire. You may not know that her great aunt famously photographed a 19th-century Ethiopian prince who had been ripped from his homeland by a British general and brought to England to live out what would be a short, unhappy life. Her masquerade also echoes the exploits of a Jamaican swindler who impersonated African royalty and became something of a folk hero. The redoubtable Jamaican journalist and playwright Una Marson actually incorporated a version of the Dreadnought stunt into
her own anti-imperialist, anti-racist comedy.
Telling the story of the hoax is inseparable from talking about the lives of Black people in Britain. Woolf may have lived in an almost exclusively white social circle, yet Black lives surrounded her own, and whether she acknowledged them or not, they contributed to the rich fabric of British life and culture.
Fourteen Years in the Making
I’ve been researching this hoax for more than a decade. My deep dives into dusty archives have helped me craft a new kind of story about Virginia Woolf, one that helps us see this remarkable writer and her times with new eyes.
Get your Copy
UNITED STATES: If you are in the US, don’t despair. You can pre-order The Girl Prince now at Oxford University Press (30% off with promo code ADISTA5), Barnes and Noble, or Amazon, and they will send it out December 15th. Or you can wait until December, and get it at your local independent bookstore, Bookshop.org, or here in Billings, Montana at This House of Books.
Thanks so much for being a reader and for supporting writers. It really means the world to us.
In that light, I want to leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Woolf herself:
“I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgement dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, those need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’”