Is it a biography? Is it a novel? No! It’s a dog. It’s a pedigree red cocker spaniel. Flush belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and featured in two of her poems as well as in her correspondence with Robert Browning. He is a literary dog, and Virginia Woolf wrote his biography, an innovative mixture of fiction and fact.
Flush by Virginia Woolf
Flush’s life began in about 1840 in a village with a loving mistress, who gave him to the poet Elizabeth Barrett. Flush gave up the pleasure of the countryside to live in Wimpole Street and to become devoted to his new mistress. He had to learn the life of a pampered housedog, was torn apart by jealousy of Robert Browning when he began to visit, and by the terror of being dognapped.
This is not an anthropomorphic story. Virginia Woolf does not make Flush the dog into an almost human. He has values, affections, emotions, and confusions. But these are rooted in his dog-ness. The reader’s attention is never very far from the concerns of the humans.
As well as mixing fact and fiction Virginia Woolf was exploring the world from the point of view of a dog. That meant that she had to focus on smells. Luckily the Brownings eloped to Italy, which drew from Virginia Woolf some of her most descriptive writing.
But Flush wandered off into the streets of Florence to enjoy the rapture of smell. He threaded his path through main streets and back streets, through squares and alleys, by smell. He nosed his way from smell to smell; the rough, the smooth, the dark, the golden, where they bake bread, where the women sit combing their hair, where the bird-cages are piled high on the causeway, where the wine spills itself in dark red stains on the pavement, where leather smells and harness and garlic, where cloth is beaten, where vine leaves tremble, where men sit and drink and spit and dice – he ran in and out, always with his nose to the ground, drinking in the essence; or with his nose in the air vibrating with the aroma. (86-7)
And even more than the technique of writing with her nose, the writer was looking at the world in an innovative way, and in particular using a witness to the experiences of a woman poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Flush is a guide for the reader, for example by his reaction to Elizabeth’s fearsome father who visits every evening to check that she has eaten. Having benefited from his mistress’s small appetite, Flush slinks away, leaving Elizabeth to her father’s approval. Through Flush’s story we can look at her life as a young woman under her father’s tyrannical rule, at her time as an invalid, at her growing affection for Robert Browning, and finally at their life in Italy. There is the subtle parallel between a young woman’s life and a dog’s. And Flush is a witness to the social and economic contrasts in London, cheek by jowl so to speak, the poverty that exists adjacent to Wimpole Street. This is not a silly or sweet book.
Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves (1931) was experimental and had been tough to produce. Flush was written ‘by way of a change’ (diary 23.12.32). As she worked on it she felt restricted by the imperative to complete it, ‘that abominable dog Flush’ (diary 3.1.33) wanting to get on with The Years.
She rightly predicted that in the longer term Flush would be seen as less significant than many of her other novels, describing it in her frustration as ‘that silly book’ (diary 28.4.33).
Virginia Woolf was not at all sure how Flush would be received. She was afraid that readers would react to it as if it were a sentimental book, and that her reputation would be damaged.
Flush will be out on Thursday and I shall be very much depressed, I think, by the kind of praise. They’ll say it’s “charming”, delicate, ladylike. And it will be popular. Well now I must let this slip over me without paying it any attention. I must concentrate on The Pargiters – or Here and Now. I must not let myself believe that I’m simply a ladylike prattler; for one thing it’s not true. But they’ll all say so. And I shall very much dislike the popular success of Flush .No, I must say to myself, this is a mere wisp, a veil of water; and so create, hardly, fiercely, as I feel now more able to do than ever before. (diary 2.10.33)
It has fewer devotees than To the Lighthouse, or Mrs Dalloway, or many of her other books. But it is a serious experiment and there is much joy, humour and smelliness in it.
Flush the dog
I was reminded of Flush the spaniel recently by an article in the Paris Review in October by Erin Schwartz. You can find it here. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote two poems to her dog: one To Flush, My Dog is long, twenty verses long. You can find it here. The poem extols the dog’s virtues as a friend. The other Flush or Faunus celebrates Flush’s ability to comfort his mistress when she is upset. Here’s a link. Neither poem is especially striking.
I chose to read Flush because my family has just been increased by a fast-growing cocker spaniel. When we chose the breed, I had forgotten that literary Flush was a spaniel. Our puppy is not red but we think she is beautiful all the same. Her name is Lupin. I will not be writing a novel about her.
NB: on several occasions Virginia Woolf has Flush eating grapes. I have been told in puppy classes that grapes are poison for dogs.
Flush by Virginia Woolf, first published by the Hogarth Press in 1933. I read the Oxford World Classics edition. 132pp
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