The Girl Prince

Virginia Woolf, Race and the Dreadnought Hoax

October 2023 9781805260066 376 pp, 12 pp b&w illus
Available as an eBook
EU Customers


In February 1910, the future Virginia Woolf played the most famous practical joke in British military history. Blackening her face and masquerading as an Abyssinian prince, the young writer and her friends conned their way onto HMS Dreadnought, the Empire’s most powerful battleship. The stunt made headlines around the world, embarrassed the Admiralty, and provoked debate in Parliament. But who was the ‘girl prince’ unidentified at the time, and what was she doing there?

The Girl Prince intertwines three fascinating stories: a scandalous prank and its afterlife; Woolf’s ideas about race and empire; and the actual lived experience of Black people in Edwardian Britain, from real princes to Caribbean writers and South African activists. Using letters, diaries, reporting and newly discovered archives, Danell Jones describes an extraordinary chain of events, exploring why a boundary-pushing novelist once pulled a bigoted blackface prank, and what it tells us—about Woolf’s Britain and Woolf’s work.

 This is a tantalisingly fresh take on an iconic writer and her deeply problematic stunt.


In 1910 Virginia Woolf and a group of friends caused a stir when they were welcomed on board the HMS Dreadnought, disguised as a delegation of Abyssinian royalty. At the 2017 Conservative Party conference, Theresa May was handed a P45 in the middle of giving her speech. Both these events made the headlines, but what was the intention behind them and did they have any impact beyond provoking either amusement or outrage? Matthew Sweet is joined by Danell Jones who has looked in detail at the Dreadnought Hoax, Simon Brodkin who has staged various high profile stunts including delivering Theresa May’s P45 and Kerry Shale whose father was an inveterate prankster who sold practical jokes for a living.

‘[A] kaleidoscopic study … [Jones’s] thorough overview of the hoax and its afterlives presents a unique window onto the early 20th-century British empire.’ — Publishers Weekly

‘An entertaining, inventive dissection of the mores and contradictions of Woolf’s life and times.’ — The Sydney Morning Herald

‘Jones introduces many of the extraordinary Black individuals’ resident in the U.K. at the time, including in Woolf’s Bloomsbury, some of whom would go on to play crucial roles in the dismantling of Empire (arguably still ongoing).’ — The New York Journal Review of Books

‘A fascinating, unnerving, and enlightening perspective on a transformative writer and the society that forged her sensibility, radical creativity, and despair.’ — Booklist

‘A superb book, splendidly written, deeply researched and richly contextualized.’ — Virginia Woolf Miscellany

‘A captivating exploration of a little-known chapter in the life of Virginia Woolf, blending history, race, and identity into a compelling narrative.’ — Oxford University Press blog

‘Shows how the Dreadnought hoax ignored its implicit but negative impact on Black people in Britain and around the world… . A fine book.’ — National Maritime Historical Society

‘Deeply researched and marvellously written, this is the book about Bloomsbury and the Dreadnought Hoax that we’ve been waiting for. Jones gives an essential racial and historical context for the event and its aftermath, which continues to this day.’ — Gretchen Gerzina, author of Black England: A Forgotten Georgian History 

‘An enlightening and insightful book that keeps you reading.’ — Remi Adekoya, author of Biracial Britain

The Girl Prince is at its most interesting when Jones draws in the contemporary experiences of black people in Britain.’ — Literary Review

‘An enthralling book. Danell Jones at last provides the nuanced context and deep historical research so often lacking in commentary on this infamous incident.’ — Mark Hussey, author of Virginia Woolf A–Z and Clive Bell and the Making of Modernism

‘While some may feel they already know all there is to know about the Dreadnought Hoax, until they read The Girl Prince, they really don’t.’ — Virginia Woolf Bulletin


Danell Jones is a writer and scholar with a PhD in literature from Columbia University. She is the author of The Virginia Woolf Writers Workshop; the poetry collection Desert Elegy; and An African in Imperial London (also available from Hurst Publishers), which won the High Plains Book Award for Nonfiction.

Request an academic inspection copy Request a press review copy
Inspection Copy Request
Review Copy Request
Join our mailing list

Subscribers receive exclusive discounts and early access to new books from Hurst.