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Friday, May 11, 2012

Virginia Woolf - Practical Joker

A relaxed Virginia Woolf with her friend Lytton Strachey. Image via

Things have become a bit bookish around here lately haven't they? With both children now at school and a precious few hours to myself every week I've felt the strong resurgence of my inner bibliomaniac. The poor thing really has been on her best behaviour while my focus has been elsewhere, running around after toddlers for the past several years, but now that she is back I'm finding her hard to control. Everywhere I look there are new books I want to read and old books and writers I want to reconnect with especially those whose work cannot be enjoyed in brief moments snatched from a busy household routine.

One of the writers I find myself thinking about a lot is Virginia Woolf. I have loved her work from the moment I read the opening lines of Mrs Dalloway as a young student:

'Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumelmayer's men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning - fresh as if issued to children on a beach.'

'Fresh as if issued to children on a beach', what an joyful phrase. And yet when I think of Virginia Woolf I like many other people think of her as a woman haunted. Haunted by the loss of so many loved ones and haunted by the spectre of what she described as her 'madness'. Do a basic image search under her name and you're confronted with a wall of photograph portraits showing a sensitive, pensive woman staring off into the distance but that line 'fresh as if issued to children on a beach' speaks to me of another Virginia so I was thrilled to find a number of very different images that reveal a more playful side to the Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf and Clive Bell on the beach, 1909. Image via

And what about this outrageous photograph that accompanied the recent article in The Guardian entitled 'How a bearded Virginia Woolf and her band of 'jolly savages' hoaxed the navy' 
Virginia Woolf (left) with the band of 'jolly savages' behind the Dreadnought hoax of 1910. Image via
Here was a side to Virginia I had not expected. The tale of how Woolf and friends hoodwinked the Royal Navy by posing as Abyssinian princes recently came to light when a letter from one of the group was offered for sale. In the letter Horace de Vere Cole noted that 'the idea was mine, but the carrying out was the work of six...It was glorious! Shriekingly funny - I nearly howled when introducing the four princes to the admiral then to the captain, for I made their names up in the train, but I forgot which was which, and introduced them under various names, but it did not matter!'
Just the thought of Woolf laughing and carrying on like a teenager as they planned and executed this prank makes me unaccountable happy. To be reminded that Virgina Woolf  - genius was also Virginia Woolf - practical joker is no small gift.


  1. They're great these images and what an amazing story about the hoax. I loved reading Mrs Dalloway too and 'The Hours' that was loosely based on it and VW's life. The film is one of my favourite, great acting wonderful sets and sound track by Philip Glass. Perfect (if a little melancholic)

  2. Glad you enjoyed the photos Deb. Nice to see another side of Virginia isn't it? I agree with you about'The Hours' too. I remember where and when I first saw it quite vividly as I had to get up and introduce it as part of a charity screening I was involved with - very nerve-wracking!

  3. That does sound nerve-wracking Caz...

    VW had so many people infatuated with her that she must have been very I suppose it's not really surprising to see this fun flirtatious side to her personality.

    Hannah is a big Virginia Woolf fan too. She came home this weekend and has been working in Soho, central London recently. She was quite excited to discover 'Blue Placked' VW's house just around the corner in Fitroy Square in one of her lunch breaks and yesterday showed me photo's she'd taken on her phone.

    Enjoy indulging your inner bibliomaniac...

  4. Ah, love it. :-)
    I love reading about times when the world truly was a strange and wonderful place, and the Exotic of 'The Other' was something that everyone believed in so readily. Try doing this now, it would only be on a tacky comedy-skit show.

    I have never read any Virginia Woolf- is it sad writing?

  5. hi there, i think this is my first time here.
    congrats on re-befriending your inner bibliomaniac - bookwhore as i call her. ;) i'm still snatching reading before bed.

    love these finds! yes, we tend to see certain figures in only certain expressions or poses or environments. i remember a little while back it was near impossible to find a smiling jim morrison.

    1. Hi Monica - welcome. I've just been over to check out your gorgeous blog. I could get lost for days over there. What impeccable taste you have! I've been a bit slack on the blogging front this year for various reasons but I feel quite inspired after seeing yours so thank you.

  6. I knew that Virginia Stephen Woolf's younger brother, Adrian Stephen, became a friend, playing a key role in Cole's jokes and in Cole's war on pomposity. Certainly they mixed in the same social circles. But I had no idea that Virginia Woolf was an active participant in the Dreadnought Hoax of 1910.

    Since we cannot see behind the beard, did Virginia Woolf own up to being the man on the left of your photo? If it is true, I will have to amend my story.
    Many thanks for the link