Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Virginia Woolf's Talk on the Dreadnought Hoax

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Virginia Woolf's Talk on the Dreadnought Hoax

Article excerpt

"It was called the most daring hoax in history"

--Virginia Woolf, from the Talk

In 1940, Virginia Woolf spoke to the Rodmell Women's Institute about the Dreadnought Hoax, a 1910 escapade starring her younger self, Virginia Stephen. Back then in 1910, she and her brother Adrian were sharing a house in Bloomsbury. The masterpiece novels, among them Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves, were all in her future. Not yet a novelist, Virginia Stephen became an activist for one day, who thumbed her nose at the British Navy in 1910. Hermione Lee reads the hoax as both a joke and a political act, in its "ridicule of empire, infiltration of the nation's defenses, mockery of bureaucratic procedures, cross-dressing and sexual ambiguity" (279). Kathy Phillips also sees Woolf questioning the authority of Empire in this hoax, suggesting that Woolf "identified with the colonists" (248). Jean Kennard represents it as "a power game in which the traditional emblems of superiority, masculinity, and whiteness were the counters" (151). In her representation, however, Woolf deliberately evades, presenting the actions as more of a lark--as more a fast-paced and hilarious adventure--than as actions against authority. Not originally involved in the hoax, she signed on "at the last moment" when two of the planners had withdrawn, because "Either they were ill; or they were afraid; or they had urgent business elsewhere." Horace Cole, the ringleader, burst through the door, distraught, to tell Adrian Stephen that they needed to find two more "conspirators." Virginia Stephen stepped up: "'I'm quote ready to come' I said. 'I should like nothing better.'" Woolf is trying to make her audience laugh, while presenting an inherently political act.

Audience members remembered the 1940 talk anecdotally for its hilarity. But the memory is anecdotal, because only three pages could be found. Quentin Bell published them in an appendix to his 1972 biography of Woolf. The whereabouts of the rest of Woolf's speech were last known in 1955, more than a decade after Woolf's death. Then, memory was still firm enough that Dame Frances Farrer asked Leonard Woolf if she might see the talk. She represented the National Federation of Women's Institutes, and, since Woolf had given the talk at a Women's Institute meeting, Dame Frances thought it should have a place in their records. Leonard Woolf sent the Rodmell manuscript, but he also wrote Dame Frances that he had no other copy. He asked her to return the manuscript, "as there is no other, I think."

The Agricultural Organisations Society had initially formed Women's Institutes in 1915. After World War I, they came under the auspices of the Board of Agriculture. By the time Woolf gave her lecture, the institutes were self-governing units, part of a rural movement of education. The Rodmell Institute asked Woolf to speak about books.

She did not. Instead she talked about her part in the hoax, an autobiographical lecture unlike standard educational fare. The manuscript describes how friends darkened their skin, put on turbans and false beards, dressing up as an Emperor and his Princes from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). They sent a false telegram from the War Office to give credence to the imposture, requesting a tour of the Navy's flagship warship, the Dreadnought. Admiral May, in charge of the Dreadnought, fell for it, and the young people viewed the most recent war technology in the British Navy, particularly the wireless equipment. Woolf states that it was "of course the newest and the most efficient kind."

The manuscript ended up in a box in the Women's Library of London Metropolitan University (5FWI/H/45 The Women's Library, London Metropolitan University). It is held in the Archive of the National Federation of Women's Institutes. Over the years, from 1955 presumably, the manuscript went with the library, in its archives, through the library's various manifestations. …

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