Flush: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

When I was looking back on my reading for 2014, one of the things which gave me the most pleasure was the fact that I really reconnected with Virginia Woolf’s writing, and in a way that’s made me keen to keep that connection going in 2015. I had my first flurry of reading her books in the 1980s which was everything I could get hold of – the novels, the diaries, essay collections, letters, biographies, the lot. I’ve revisited her intermittently over the years, but since I started blogging I’ve dipped in with some essays and fiction. But it was taking the plunge and returning to “Mrs. Dalloway”, my first Woolf, that was really pivotal. I was delighted and relieved that it still had the same effect on me, and I’m currently pursing her books of complete essays (but that’s another story…)

So the fact that my lovely VSS, Genny, chose to gift me the Persephone edition of “Flush” was serendipitous to say the least. I probably haven’t read this title for 30 years, and I actually don’t think I’ve revisited since the first reading (when I was reading all Woolf’s novels in order). “Flush” is a bit of an oddity and I was interested to see what I would think of it this time round – so it was the first book to come off the Christmas pile!

Photo courtesy theidler.co.uk

Photo courtesy theidler.co.uk

The original Flush the dog was, of course, the spaniel belonging to poet Elizabeth Barrett (Browning), given to her by Mary Russell Mitford, and a dear companion through her years of seclusion as an invalid. Woolf chose to write a biography of the dog, which in fact also ends up being very revealing about the life of Elizabeth herself! So we see events through the eyes of a dog, from his early life running wild in the fields, through the transition to a house dog, pampered and faithful friend to EBB; then Flush is kidnapped and held for ransom, in some ways a pivotal event as we see Elizabeth stepping outside of her seclusion to go to the rescue. Finally, Robert Browning enters the scene; the relationship between Flush and his owner changes, and he is witness to the marriage and elopement, seeing out his days in exile with the Brownings in Italy.

The tale of the Brownings is of course a fascinating one on its own, but by telling the story through a biography of Flush, Woolf lets us look at the tale very differently. There is a strong link between EBB and Flush, and their lives are also constrained in similar ways. However, the foreword by author Sally Beauman invites to look at “Flush” with yet another layer of meaning, whereby she links Woolf herself with the subjects of her book.

Beauman makes a strong case for the parallels between EBB and Woolf in her introduction: both had domineering and somewhat weird fathers; both suffered illness, with their health closely guarded by their husbands; and both longed to break out from that control (as did Flush!) I’m not sure whether this was a deliberate subtext by Woolf, a subconscious one or just a modern reading we might impose, but nevertheless it’s a fascinating interpretation. Whether or not you accept this particular idea, I believe Woolf is definitely comparing the life of Flush and his mistress: the dog becomes domesticated and controlled, confined to the bedroom like EBB and it is only when she breaks free that he does too.

Elizabeth Barrett and Flush 1841 - courtesy http://cambridgecanine.com

Elizabeth Barrett and Flush 1841 – courtesy http://www.cambridgecanine.com

But enough of interpretation; what about the writing? Well, this is Virginia Woolf we’re talking about her so the prose is fluid, beautiful and eminently readable. It’s just such a joy to read her work again and to revel in the wonderful structure of her writing, her flights of fancy, the compelling nature of her books. Woolf apparently wrote “Flush” as light relief from composing “The Waves”, one of her more complex novels, but light it is not. It contains life, love and the world, and really what more is there? She paints a vivid, impressionistic picture of EBB through the life of her dog, and also provided a touching portrayal of the world of dogs as a species.

Miss Barrett’s bedroom — for such it was — must by all accounts have been dark. The light, normally obscured by a curtain of green damask, was in summer further dimmed by the ivy, the scarlet runners, the convolvuluses and the nasturtiums which grew in the window-box. At first Flush could distinguish nothing in the pale greenish gloom but five white globes glimmering mysteriously in mid-air. But again it was the smell of the room that overpowered him. Only a scholar who has descended step by step into a mausoleum and there finds himself in a crypt, crusted with fungus, slimy with mould, exuding sour smells of decay and antiquity, while half-obliterated marble busts gleam in mid-air and all is dimly seen by the light of the small swinging lamp which he holds, and dips and turns, glancing now here, now there — only the sensations of such an explorer into the buried vaults of a ruined city can compare with the riot of emotions that flooded Flush’s nerves as he stood for the first time in an invalid’s bedroom, in Wimpole Street, and smelt eau de cologne.

I could get all fan-girl here and rant on about what a genius Woolf was, but if you’ve read and loved her you’ll know this already; if you don’t like her work then nothing I say will convince you. “Flush” is possible a good way to get entry into Woolf’s writing, though, as it reads a little like a cross between her novels and her essays and might be less intimidating that something longer.

VW courtesy the Persephone website

VW courtesy the Persephone website

I’m not sure whether I subscribe to Sally Beauman’s interpretation of the extra level, although it is intriguing, but I’ve definitely read the book differently this time round; in particular, the parallels between Flush and EBB weren’t so obvious to me before. But even if we don’t look for other meanings, we are left with a beautifully imagined and told tale of a dog and his mistress, a moving story that actually made me a bit teary at the end. I’m so glad that my love of Woolf really rebooted in 2014 and I’m hoping that in 2015 I’ll continue to discover more in one of my favourite authors! 🙂