Phase 4 of Ali’s year-long #Woolfalong involves reading biographies by or about Virginia Woolf during the months of July and August. I didn’t think I would have time to participate, but Flush, Woolf’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, is a very short book and I have managed to fit it in before the end of the two month period. Flush is a book I’d been interested in reading for a long time and I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t disappointed!
Flush, a red cocker spaniel, is given to the poet Elizabeth Barrett by her friend Mary Russell Mitford. Unmarried and an invalid, Elizabeth is confined to her bedroom in the family home on London’s Wimpole Street, where she lives with her father and siblings. Flush immediately forms a strong bond with his new mistress and although at first he misses the open spaces of his old home with the Mitfords, he quickly becomes spoiled and pampered, happy to stay curled up at Elizabeth’s feet in front of the fire. It’s not long, however, before Flush’s happiness is threatened by the arrival of another contender for Elizabeth Barrett’s love: the poet Robert Browning.
As Browning’s visits to the Barratt home become more frequent, Flush is forced to deal with new emotions he has never experienced before: jealousy and rivalry. When Barrett and Browning elope, Flush goes with them to Italy. Here Elizabeth finds a new strength and independence away from the control of her father and the stifling seclusion of her Wimpole Street bedroom – and in one of many parallels between the life of woman and dog, Flush rediscovers some of the freedom he had enjoyed as a young puppy.
Flush is a wonderfully creative combination of fiction and non-fiction. For factual information, Woolf draws on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s two poems about her dog and also the letters of Elizabeth and Robert, some of which she quotes from in the text. From a fictional point of view, the book is written from Flush’s perspective, imagining how a dog might feel and behave in a variety of different situations. The result is a book which is fascinating, unusual and a delight to read!
Flush works on at least three levels. First, it’s exactly what it appears to be: the biography of a dog, taking us from puppyhood to adulthood and old age, immersing us in a canine world – a world of intriguing scents and mysterious sounds. It’s also the biography of two poets, exploring the lives of both Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning through a dog’s eyes. Finally, it gives Woolf a chance to examine various aspects of class and society. For example, on his occasional outings in London with Wilson, the maid, Flush notices that not all dogs are equal:
But the dogs of London, Flush soon discovered, are strictly divided into different classes. Some are chained dogs; some run wild. Some take their airings in carriages and drink from purple jars; others are unkempt and uncollared and pick up a living in the gutter. Dogs therefore, Flush began to suspect, differ; some are high, others low…
If this book sounds of any interest to you at all, then I would highly recommend giving it a try. It’s insightful, amusing and entertaining and I think it might be a good place to start for a reader who has never read Woolf before; I found it a much lighter and easier read than To the Lighthouse, for example, which I read earlier this year. Although I haven’t managed to take part in every phase of the Woolfalong, there are still another two to come so I may be tempted to read more Woolf before the year is over!