Flush by Virginia Woolf
Published by: Penguin Classics, Little Black Classics
Publication Date: March 3rd 2016 (First Published in 1933)
Genres: Classics, Historical Fiction
Date Read: June 9th, 2016
Links: Goodreads | Booktopia | Book Depository
“Things are not simple but complex. If he bit Mr. Browning he bit her too. Hatred is not hatred; hatred is also love.’
Virginia Woolf’s delightful biography of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, which asks what it means to be human – and to be dog.
It is one of 46 new books in the bestselling Little Black Classics series, to celebrate the first ever Penguin Classic in 1946. Each book gives readers a taste of the Classics’ huge range and diversity, with works from around the world and across the centuries – including fables, decadence, heartbreak, tall tales, satire, ghosts, battles and elephants.
This story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Flush, enchants right from the opening pages. Although Flush has adventures of his own with bullying dogs, horrid maids, and robbers, he also provides the reader with a glimpse into Browning’s life.
I have been looking forward to reading Flush for months, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Victorians loved biographies, especially biographies of the eminent: kings, queens and other distinguished members of society. Flush is the biography of such an eminent Victorian. Flush is in fact the biography of a dog. But not just any dog, an Eminent Dog, the pure bred Cocker Spaniel belonging to another eminent Victorian, the poet Elizabeth Barrett who eventually married Eminent Victorian Robert Browning after they’d exchanged an entire volume of love letters; they then went to live in Italy, taking Flush along with them.
The book is a combination of fiction and non-fiction, through which we meet the two nineteenth century poets, revealing something of the early years of their marriage. So if we’re wondering about the unusual choice of biographical subject, the dog rather than his mistress. In 1933, Woolf wrote to a friend: I was so tired after finishing ‘The Waves’ that I lay in the garden and read the Browning love letters, and the figure of the dog made me laugh so I couldn’t resist making him a Life. I wanted to play a joke on Lytton. Lytton Strachey was Woolf’s long time friend and a rather irreverent biographer himself; his Eminent Victorians is a parody of the serious biographical style so beloved of the Victorians.
For drama, the high points in this tale include a period of jealousy when Robert Browning comes on the scene, a terrifying incident where Flush is dognapped and ransomed, and an epiphany of new freedoms for Flush that come when the married couple moves to Italy. A dog’s eye view of their celebrated romance is a nice deflation.
Although it appears so much lighter in tone than many of her other works, Flush does in fact consider social inequalities and the way that society treated and classified its women. Virginia Woolf employs her famous stream of consciousness style to explore women writers, through the point of view of a small, spoiled brown dog. Apparently Woolf drew her inspiration from the two poems that Elizabeth Barrett Browning published about her dog.
Probably the lightest of her works but as this is Virginia Woolf you can expect the odd social commentary, questioning of the human condition and streams of consciousness, albeit from the point of view of a dog.
The prose in this little book is absolutely breathtaking and is, in my very humble opinion, one of Woolf’s most heartfelt, intimate works. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s own written work describing Flush validates Woolf’s narrative and even sublimates the love and devotion that a spaniel and her owner experience.
Anyone who has an interest in 1800s England and Italy must read this book. There are descriptions of country life, city slums, exotic markets, spiritualism, dognapping: snapshots that are spare, elegant and packed with visual imagery in ways that only Virginia Woolf could master.