Virginia Woolf may have had a delicate appearance, but she was stronger than she looked.
The New Yorker recalls:
as Evelyn Irons recalled in an essay published in our pages in 1963, three members of the Bloomsbury Group requested a tour of the Daily Mail’s printing presses in 1932. “Look here, Virginia wants to see your paper being printed,” Vita Sackville-West had told Irons at the time. “Do you think you could arrange it?”
Irons, who later became a war correspondent and was the first woman journalist to reach Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, was then the editor of the Mail’s women’s page. (She would later be fired for “looking unfashionable.”) In that capacity, she had, the previous year, interviewed Sackville-West and the two women had begun an affair. According to Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Sackville-West, Irons was the subject of a number of Sackville-West’s 1931 love poems. “It seemed very odd to me that Virginia Woolf should want to see the mass-circulation Daily Mail being put to bed, but it could be arranged, and easily,” wrote Irons.
At nine o’clock one night the following week, Sackville-West, Woolf, and Woolf’s husband, Leonard, arrived at the Mail’s offices for their tour. “The whole evening had an unreal quality,” Irons recalled, and continued:
There they were, perched around the room like unfamiliar night birds: Vita Sackville-West, tall, intensely handsome, wearing her usual long, dangling earrings and smoking through a paper cigarette holder; Leonard Woolf, a dark, brooding man with aggressive eyebrows; and Virginia Woolf, recalling the moon in the daytime sky—ethereal, bone-pale, the eyes set deep in the skull. She was fifty, but age had nothing to do with her appearance; she must have looked like that forever. You might as well show those clattering presses to a ghost, I thought.
However, her guests were not there to hear anecdotes. Despite her ethereal appearance, Virginia Woolf had more than a passing interest in the working of the newspaper’s presses. To Irons’s surprise, Woolf engaged in lengthy and detailed discussions with the printers, handling their tools and often shouting to be heard over the noise of the presses. At one point Woolf even displayed her ability to read set type upside down. “We don’t often get ladies coming in from outside who can do that,” said one of the printers. The experience changed Irons’s view of Woolf:
There seemed to be little that was wan or mothlike, delicate or remote, about her now. Her long, slender fingers were smudged with black ink, and her behavior was that of a mechanically minded man.
(click here to continue reading Back Issues: Virginia Woolf Visits the Daily Mail : The New Yorker.)