In 1910, a telegram arrived on HMS Dreadnought, warning of the imminent arrival of a group of Abyssinian royals. When the party of six boarded shortly afterwards, they were given a tour of the ship by its officers. Needless to say, none of the visitors was an actual dignitary, none of them came from Ethiopia, and when the press found out it had a field day. The reason we still hear about it is because one of the ‘royals’ was Virginia Stephen (soon to become Woolf); another was the painter Duncan Grant. As part of their disguise, they had darkened their faces.
Among the many examples of Woolf’s capacity for prejudice, the Dreadnought hoax is today probably the most shocking. For all that she and others might later frame the escapade as targeted mockery of militarism, or empire, or sexism, there is no way around the fact that the woman whose feminism, pacifism and anticolonialism have made her an icon thought it was funny to dress up in blackface.
Beyond her writing, is what Virginia Woolf did during her life really all that important? For Danell Jones, who has wrung an entire book from the Dreadnought hoax, the importance