Blog 144: Howards End in To the Lighthouse (4 of 4)

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Like Forster, Virginia was acutely aware of the importance and power of journalism. Her novels, essays, letters and diaries are full of references to The Times, usually critical, and she was very aware of how The Times shaped public opinion with regard to the war. In a February, 1916, letter to Margaret Lewellyn Davies she wrote: “I have been reading Carlyle’s Past and Present and wondering whether all his rant has made a scrap of difference practically. But Bertie according to Bo Trevelyan who lunched here, takes his lectures very seriously, and thinks he’s going to found new civilizations. I become steadily more feminist, owing to The Times, which I read at breakfast and wonder how this preposterous masculine fiction [the war] keeps going a day longer–without some vigorous young woman pulling us together and marching through it–Do you see any sense in it? I feel as if I were reading about some curious tribe in Central Africa.” The way in which this comment links Carlyle, Bertrand Russell (whose anti-war lectures were published as Principles of Social Reconstruction in 1916) The Times, and a Conradian anthropological perspective illustrates both the density and intensity of Virginia’s thinking about the war. The Times did far more than help shape her feminism; it also contributed to her ferocious pacifism, the pacifism expressed so subtly in Jacobs Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Between the Acts, and much more angrily and overtly in Three Guineas.

In the lead-up to WWI, of particular interest to Virginia would have been the numerous Times articles about the naval situation and about dreadnoughts. She was, after all, more familiar with dreadnoughts than most civilians in England. 1910 was not just the year Howards End was published; it was also the year Virginia participated in an event which subsequently became known as the “Dreadnought Hoax.” The hoax involved Virginia and five young men impersonating the Emperor of Abyssinia and his entourage. Disguised with the help of blackface, turbans and robes, the six hoaxers were received with an honour guard and toured the flagship of the British Navy, HMS Dreadnought. The HMS Dreadnought was a state-of-the-art 527 foot, 18,000 ton battleship, armed with ten turret mounted 45-calibre 12-inch guns, guns which fired 850-pound shells at a muzzle velocity of 2,725 ft/s at targets up to a 17,990 yards away. The first battleship ever to be driven by steam turbines, she was capable of speeds in excess of 21 knots. Prior to her launch in 1906, by the king himself, Janes Fighting Ships said of her: “It is hardly too much to say that, given her speed, gun power, range, and the smashing effect of the concentrated force of heavy projectiles, the Dreadnought should easily be equal in battle-worthiness to any two, probably to three, of most of the ships now afloat.”

This was the vessel toured and inspected by the group of hoaxers of which Virginia was a part. Not only was HMS Dreadnought seen as revolutionizing battleship technology, but in retrospect she was also seen as a major factor in the naval arms race which preceded WWI. She was such a potent symbol of British naval power that an entire class of battleships was named after her. The hoax was staggering in its audacity, and a similar hoax would be inconceivable today. Imagine pranksters tricking their way onto a steroid version of the HMS Bulwark and being treated with full military honours.

Virginia’s participation in the “Dreadnought Hoax” was not a deliberate political act. The hoax was conceived as a prank, and Virginia herself only joined because two other would-be participants pulled out at the last minute. Yet, while Virginia’s participation was almost accidental, the “Dreadnought Hoax” can be seen as growing out of some of the conditions which Forster so shrewdly noted and made use of in Howards End. The origins of the hoax go back to 1905, when Adrian Stephen (Virginia’s brother) and Horace de Vere Cole and three other friends, bored Cambridge undergraduates, dressed up as the Sultan of Zanzibar and his suite and tricked the Mayor of Cambridge into giving them a formal reception. Their original plan, much more ambitious and correspondingly unrealistic, was to dress up as German officers, go to Germany, and dupe a unit of German troops into creating an international incident by marching them into France. The plan, clearly, was inspired by stories and reports about the self-importance and bellicosity of the German army. As Adrian Stephen later wrote, “It had seemed to me ever since I was very young, just as I imagine it had seemed to Cole, that anyone who took up an attitude of authority over anyone else was necessarily also someone who offered a leg for everyone else to pull, and of all the institutions in the world that offered a leg for everyone’s pulling the most obvious was the German Army.” Virginia’s participation in the “Dreadnought Hoax” and her evolving political consciousness had similar origins. In To the Lighthouse, there is much of the young Virginia and the young Adrian in the way in which James and Cam try to resist the authority of the father on the sailboat.

Life shapes fiction and fiction shapes life. Fiction shapes life and life shapes fiction. Imagine the 28 year old Virginia walking the decks of HMS Dreadnought. Imagine bringing that kind of experience to bear on life. The impact the “Dreadnought Hoax” had on Virginia is hinted at in “A Society.” When the women organize themselves into a society to investigate what the world is like, one of them, Rose, goes off to the “Kings navy” and visits a man-of-war. The society is much amused when Rose comes back and reports “how she had dressed herself as an Æthiopian Prince and gone aboad one of His Majesty’s ships.” In the story, the incident serves to mock patriarchal notions of authority and of honour. Forsterian in its directness, much less oblique than To the Lighthouse, “A Society” openly attacks the empty, self-importance of male directed culture. Even as “the Treaty of Peace” is signed, one of the women, Castallia, expounds on the difficulty of altering or channeling such a culture: “For unless we provide them with some innocent occupation we shall get neither good people nor good books; we shall perish beneath the fruits of their unbridled activity; and not a human being will survive to know that there once was Shakespeare!”

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