It is to poetry, alas, that we have to trust for our most detailed description of Flush himself as a young dog. He was of that particular shade of dark brown which in sunshine flashes “all over into gold.” His eyes were “startled eyes of hazel bland.” His ears were “tasselled”; his “slender feet” were “canopied in fringes” and his tail was broad. Making allowance for the exigencies of rhyme and the inaccuracies of poetic diction, there is nothing here but what would meet with the approval of the Spaniel Club. We cannot doubt that Flush was a pure-bred Cocker of the red variety marked by all the characteristic excellences of his kind.Virginia Woolf’s Flush is a curious blend of fiction and non-fiction. It’s a biography of what is probably the most famous Cocker Spaniel in the history of English literature – Flush belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and followed its mistress from her confinement in her father’s house in Wimpole Street to Italy, where she eloped with her lover and fellow poet Robert Browning. As she tells Flush’s story, Woolf also tells the story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning’s romance, and of her progress from an invalid to a woman at the peek of her powers. She also uses the opportunity to comment on creativity, class, gender, and human and canine nature. Flush is by necessity somewhat fictionalised, but much to my delight Woolf makes use of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning’s own words whenever possible.
I suspect that even more so than Orlando, Flush is the perfect Virginia Woolf icebreaker – the ideal cure to Woolf intimidation, that common malady of which I myself was a sufferer until not very long ago. Those who have read Orlando will be familiar with this facet of hers: this is Woolf at her most humours; this is Woolf inviting us to laugh along with her, but all the while taking the novelist’s prerogative of illuminating hidden corners of human experience as seriously as ever. This is Woolf being lighthearted, which doesn’t necessarily mean she’s being light.
The fact that I recently read the first volume of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning’s letters increased my appreciation of Flush, but I wouldn’t say you need to have read them to enjoy this book. I’ve yet to read volume two, actually, and much of the ground Flush covers actually coincides with the second volume’s time frame: there’s the elopement itself, and there’s the incident in which Flush is kidnapped and Elizabeth Barrett is asked for a ransom, for example – not to mention the fact that the book also includes events that take place after the Brownings’ correspondence ceased because they had gotten married and were living together.
Flush’s abduction is probably the central even in this book – not only because it’s such an unexpected occurrence in a young well-bred Cocker Spaniel’s life, but also because the events that follow give Woolf ample room to comment on gender and on the class structure of the Victorian age. First and foremost, Elizabeth Barrett rebels against what was a Victorian woman’s sacred duty – to be guided and to acquiesce – and very firmly stands her ground:
How easy it would have been to sink back on her pillows and sigh, “I am a weak woman; I know nothing of law and justice; decide for me.” She had only to refuse to pay the ransom; she had only to defy Taylor and his society. And if Flush were killed, if the dreadful parcel came and she opened it and out dropped his head and paws, there was Robert Browning by her side to assure her that she had done right and earned his respect. But Miss Barrett was not to be intimidated. Miss Barrett took up her pen and refuted Robert Browning. It was all very well, she said, to quote Donne; to cite the case of Gregory; to invent spirited replies to Mr. Taylor—she would have done the same had Taylor struck her; had Gregory defamed her—would that they had! But what would Mr. Browning have done if the banditti had stolen her; had her in their power; threatened to cut off her ears and send them by post to New Cross? Whatever he would have done, her mind was made up. Flush was helpless. Her duty was to him. “But Flush, poor Flush, who has loved me so faithfully; have I a right to sacrifice him in his innocence, for the sake of any Mr. Taylor’s guilt in the world?” Whatever Mr. Browning might say, she was going to rescue Flush, even if she went down into the jaws of Whitechapel to fetch him, even if Robert Browning despised her for doing so.Secondly, her contact with the world of Whitechapel allows her to gain awareness of the social contrasts that exist just beyond her doorstep—an awareness that was later to inform her work. Regarding class in general, Flush is a lot wiser and warmer than I’d tend to give Virginia Woolf credit for. I’m not going to suggest she was completely free of class consciousness, but things always tend to be a little more complicated than that. Take this passage, for instance:
Before they left Pisa—in the spring of 1847 they moved on to Florence—Flush had faced the curious and at first upsetting truth that the laws of the Kennel Club are not universal. He had brought himself to face the fact that light topknots are not necessarily fatal. He had revised his code accordingly. He had acted, at first with some hesitation, upon his new conception of canine society. He was becoming daily more and more democratic. Even in Pisa, Mrs. Browning noticed, “. . . he goes out every day and speaks Italian to the little dogs.” Now in Florence the last threads of his old fetters fell from him. The moment of liberation came one day in the Cascine. As he raced over the grass “like emeralds” with “the pheasants all alive and flying,” Flush suddenly bethought him of Regent’s Park and its proclamation: Dogs must be led on chains. Where was “must” now? Where were chains now? Where were park-keepers and truncheons? Gone, with the dog-stealers and Kennel Clubs and Spaniel Clubs of a corrupt aristocracy! Gone with four-wheelers and hansom cabs! with Whitechapel and Shoreditch! He ran, he raced; his coat flashed; his eyes blazed. He was the friend of all the world now. All dogs were his brothers. He had no need of a chain in this new world; he had no need of protection. If Mr. Browning was late in going for his walk—he and Flush were the best of friends now—Flush boldly summoned him.See what I mean by wise and warm? And I’ll add another “w” – Flush is incredibly witty too. The book was a delight to read, and I especially loved the obvious fondness with which Woolf indirectly writes about a poet she clearly admired. I so wish she and Elizabeth Barrett could have met. I can see them enjoying each other’s company tremendously, and also learning a lot from each other. A few more bits I particularly liked:
“Oh, Flush!” said Miss Barrett. For the first time she looked him in the face. For the first time Flush looked at the lady lying on the sofa.Reviewed at:
Each was surprised. Heavy curls hung down on either side of Miss Barrett’s face; large bright eyes shone out; a large mouth smiled. Heavy ears hung down on either side of Flush’s face; his eyes, too, were large and bright: his mouth was wide. There was a likeness between them. As they gazed at each other each felt: Here am I—and then each felt: But how different! Hers was the pale worn face of an invalid, cut off from air, light, freedom. His was the warm ruddy face of a young animal; instinct with health and energy. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? She might have been—all that; and he—But no. Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other. Then with one bound Flush sprang on to the sofa and laid himself where he was to lie for ever after—on the rug at Miss Barrett’s feet.
We cannot blame him if his sensibility was cultivated rather to the detriment of his sterner qualities. Naturally, lying with his head pillowed on a Greek lexicon, he came to dislike barking and biting; he came to prefer the silence of the cat to the robustness of the dog; and human sympathy to either. Miss Barrett, too, did her best to refine and educate his powers still further. Once she took a harp from the window and asked him, as she laid it by his side, whether he thought that the harp, which made music, was itself alive? He looked and listened; pondered, it seemed, for a moment in doubt and then decided that it was not. Then she would make him stand with her in front of the looking-glass and ask him why he barked and trembled. Was not the little brown dog opposite himself? But what is “oneself”? Is it the thing people see? Or is it the thing one is? So Flush pondered that question too, and, unable to solve the problem of reality, pressed closer to Miss Barrett and kissed her “expressively.” That was real at any rate.
He shook his ruff. He danced on his nude, attenuated legs. His spirits rose. So might a great beauty, rising from a bed of sickness and finding her face eternally disfigured, make a bonfire of clothes and cosmetics, and laugh with joy to think that she need never look in the glass again or dread a lover’s coolness or a rival’s beauty. So might a clergyman, cased for twenty years in starch and broadcloth, cast his collar into the dustbin and snatch the works of Voltaire from the cupboard. So Flush scampered off clipped all over into the likeness of a lion, but free from fleas. “Flush,” Mrs. Browning wrote to her sister, “is wise.” She was thinking perhaps of the Greek saying that happiness is only to be reached through suffering. The true philosopher is he who has lost his coat but is free from fleas.
Paperback Reader (Thank you, Claire, for yet another excellent recommendation.)
(As always, let me know if I missed yours.)