Editor’s Note: This essay, written in March of this year, was contributed by Mine Özyurt Kılıç, a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University and co-organizer of Harvard’s May 10 event, A Press of One’s Own: Celebrating 100 Years of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press. At Harvard, she currently investigates the connection between the ethical and aesthetic components of short fiction. Her research mostly focuses on contemporary British fiction with special interest in women’s writing. She is the author of the first book-length study on Maggie Gee’s fiction — Maggie Gee: Writing the Condition-of-England Novel (Bloomsbury 2013). This academic celebration brings her back to her master’s thesis on the theme of failure in love in T. S. Eliot’s poetry as well as to her lectures on British Modernism.
The snail is a seal of the Hogarth Press, a signature of its focus on nature and the natural against the industrialized literary marketplace! Like this snail with its home on its back, The Hogarth married private and public life with a letterpress machine on a dining table. And that has made all the difference!
The snail that makes its appearance on the first publication of the Hogarth Press, “The Mark on the Wall” (1917), is the very emblem of the Woolfs’ mission. Like Schumacher’s claim for the economy “Small is Beautiful”, the Woolfs suggest that in “express[ing] the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair”: Slow is beautiful!
This first Woolf story they publish can also be read as a fictional manifestation of Woolf’s ars poetica. The narrator first situates herself in the world understanding one truth about it– “what an airless, shallow, bald, prominent world it becomes! A world not to be lived in” — then discerns her calling in it:
I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle. I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts.
This quiet, calm, spacious, and uninterrupted mode of deep thinking is the very engine behind Woolf’s Modernist texts that require a different mode of reading, a deliberately slow and effortful one that is like the movements of a crawling snail. The central motif in the story, also visually reproduced in Dora Carrington’s woodcut print to accompany the text, the snail is one of the many lives that the narrator feels committed to describe in detail.
[…] there are a million patient, watchful lives still for a tree, all over the world, in bedrooms, in ships, on the pavement, lining rooms, where men and women sit after tea, smoking cigarettes. It is full of peaceful thoughts, happy thoughts, this tree. I should like to take each one separately.
In a later Woolf story “Kew Gardens” (1919), the snail now becomes one of the central consciousnesses. A single figure among those visitors coming from different walks of life, it makes its way around the flowerbed, thinking whether it is better to move or not, drawing the reader’s attention to the minutiae of everyday life, to a moment of being, from a major to a minor key. As such, it becomes a sign of a special state of consciousness slow enough to attend to details, to the cotton wool of daily life, to moments of being, to epiphanies, to fragments shored against ruins, to marks on walls, flowers, images and smells that memory brings from distant times and places.
In the idiom of Woolf’s snail, the early Hogarth draws its readers’ attention to an eccentric, marginal and extraordinary vision that necessitates a reading slow enough to digest and savor millions of surrounding lives.