Tag Archives: poems

Flush by Virginia Woolf

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.

Publishing Flush

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

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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.

Red Cocker Spaniel 8th Sept 2018 by Canarian via WikiCommons

Lupin October 2018

Flush by Virginia Woolf, first published by the Hogarth Press in 1933. I read the Oxford World Classics edition. 132pp

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Filed under Books, poetry, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

Gallimaufry or why my writing group is cock-o-hoop

Gallimaufry. Say it out loud to hear the skip in the middle of the word, like a sedate court dance. Gallimaufry is a late medieval word, probably from the French, meaning a ridiculous medley, or a hodge-podge of odds and ends. It is the title of the anthology by The Totnes Writing Group. We took delivery of 100 copies on 1st December last year. The group had been working towards this for about four months. The copies were impressive: the cover and the piles. The writers present felt immense pride at an ambition achieved, and a successful project completed.

228 Galli cover

The Group

The group was started in 2013 as a library initiative – those libraries again. (see next post on 5th February). The writers are a diverse lot. They include a gardener, care worker, home tutor, counsellor, IT expert, bowls player, theatre producer, artists, teachers, psychologist, editor, journalists, film maker. Some are established writers, others are beginners. A motley group of 15 writers had produced a collection of 36 poems, short stories, memoirs, reflections and illustrations. My own contribution was a short story.

228 Writers group

Most of the stress of the project was carried by Fiona Murray who edited the book, dealt with the printers, and all the complaints of writers who had commas and fonts adjusted without their say-so.

Why we did it

Writers like having readers and for many it is the reason they write. Although members read their work to the group, which is important, many of us also seek a wider audience. We began to ask ourselves, why don’t we publish a book of our own writings and then used the skills within the group to find a way to do it.

The anthology provided protection and support for those who love writing but do not want to stick out and who suffer from lack of confidence about going public with their writing. It’s a bit like singing in a choir, one of our members observed. If we publish again we hope more writers from our group will contribute.

What the group learned

At our New Year meeting the group identified the following learnings:

Feedback from our readers suggests that the diversity of themes, styles and genres is an attractive feature of the collection. We did not have a theme although if a writer wanted one we suggested ‘Totnes’. This is pretty much how our group operates – loosely.

The cover and overall professional look added greatly to the attractiveness of the anthology. The silk collage used for the cover was made by Fiona Green, a member of the group.

Writers selected the pieces they wanted to contribute. The editor did not choose what to include. We set an initial 2000 word limit and later, when we worked out we could include more for the same costs, a few people contributed additional material.

The experience of writing is lonely. Our warm, supportive group made one aspect of writing – the production of the anthology – a social process for our writers. Social support is something we all value in the writing group.

Writing is often ephemeral and the production of the collection meant that words took a more permanent form for the contributors. Seeing our work on paper, and alongside the other contributions, made us feel more confident about our writing. It has also made us question our current practice. At the moment the writer reads aloud their text for which they want feedback. Perhaps we should have hard copies of the written text because seeing a poem or short story in print is different from hearing it.

The production of our anthology has made us question the purposes of our group. Are we in a new phase? Do we want to launch into another publication, even one in a different format, or do we want to focus a little more on writing processes?

What we need to think about if we do this again

Some of our practical decisions indicate a lack of experience. We could have thought further ahead about costings, publicity and sales. Since our purpose was not to raise money, but to provide a platform, some of that seemed less important. We still have a dozen copies from our print run. We are on the point of breaking even!

The sales team having some success.

The sales team having some success.

Our frustrations (carried by our noble editor) about the printer’s inability to make corrections without causing further unwanted alterations to the text suggest we need to build in more time and more support for proofreading. We wanted a local printer, but we might look for a more responsive one.

And what would be the purpose of a further publication? Do we want to be cherished by the local community? Do we want to be better known as a creative group, and to contribute to the local creative community?

Overall

We learned so much about publishing that I would recommend the process to anyone who wants a modest platform for their writing.

I acknowledge the contribution of our discussion within the group about what we learned in the writing of this post. However I have not attempted to define what the group thought. We are a diverse lot and we seldom agree on everything, but this project was A GOOD THING.

Gallimaufry, edited by Fiona Murray, 87pp. Price £5. Published December 2015.

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Filed under Books, Libraries, Publishing our book, words, Writing