‘Then with one bound Flush sprang on to the sofa and laid himself where he was to lie for ever after – on the rug at Miss Barrett’s feet.’
Still afraid of Virginia Woolf? You needn’t be if you are a dog, which it must be admitted, rules out most of us readers. Woolf’s own dog, Pinka, became the model for Flush, a red cocker spaniel, beloved companion of poet Elizabeth Barret Browning (1806-1861).
The title correctly includes the word ‘biography’. This is a ‘life’ of a dog from birth to death, with footnotes and dates, and while we are also given a perspective on the Barrett family and then the Brownings’, Woolf holds true to the sensibility of a dog’s world, what Flush would see, hear, smell, fear and desire, and departs from it only to clarify points beyond Flush’s comprehension.
‘(She) never pretended that Flush could talk or even think like a human being: but he could observe, and Mrs Browning would do the talking for him. The book was poetic. Through Flush’s eyes she retold the story of Elizabeth’s elopement with Robert Browning’. (Nigel Nicholson in his biography of Virginia Woolf*).
Woolf begins with a spoof genealogical quest for Flush’s far distant ancestors, until reaching the known facts: Flush (c1842) was sired by Tray and romped through his first year with Miss Mitford of Reading.
‘The sight of his dear mistress (Miss Mitford) snuffing the fresh air at last, letting it ruffle her white hair and redden the natural freshness of her face, while the lines on her huge brow smooth themselves out, excited him to gambols whose wildness was half sympathy with her own delight’.
Miss Mitford gave him to her dear friend, the invalid Miss Barrett. Now Flush had to adapt to another life. He was almost as confined as Miss Barrett save for short daily walks with Wilson at the end of a chain and occasional outings when his mistress felt well enough.
But those five years of restrictions in Wimpole Street were not safe. Flush was dognapped! The poor that crowded slums directly behind Wimple Street made a business out of taking dogs for ransoms. They were ruthless when not paid, killing the dogs. Miss Barrett was abandoned by her father, her brothers, even by Robert Browning. All the men were ready to sacrifice Flush ‘on principle’ rather than pay up. It is a great moment to read about when Miss Barrett, alone with her frightened but resolute maid Wilson, bravely hauled herself out of the house and to the slums to rescue her pet. In a note to the biography, Woolf acknowledged that she compressed three actual thefts of Flush into one. In all Miss Barrett paid twenty pounds to the gangs to retrieve him.
But Flush had more to endure. Mr Browning kept visiting. Miss Barrett turned her former unwavering attention away from Flush. Mr Browning, usurped him. Flush did mutiny at this injustice but it came to naught.
A curious day came when boxes were discreetly packed and Miss Barrett with Wilson, slipped out of the house on Wimpole Street. A cab waited outside. ‘Flush sat on her knee very still. Not for anything in the whole world would he have broken that tremendous silence’.
Elizabeth was eloping to Italy with ‘Robert‘, ‘My husband’. The invalid Miss Barrett now changes into the reinvigorated Mrs Browning. ‘Instead of driving in a landau to Regent’s Park she pulled on her thick boots and scrambled over rocks.’ As the eventful months passed, Flush changed too, losing his old fetters.
‘The moment of liberation came one day in the Cascine. As he raced over the grass with pheasants all alive and flying, Flush suddenly bethought him of Regents Park and its proclamation: Dogs must be lead on chains. Where was ‘must’ now? Where were chains now? Gone, with the dog-stealers …. He ran, he raced; his coat flashed, his eyes blazed. He had no need of a chain in this new world; he had no need of protection’.
And that, I cannot doubt, is Woolf describing Mrs Browning’s sense of liberation too.
Woolf’s own assessment of the book: ‘She was not pleased with it. She had “started it to let her brain cool” after The Waves. It was ”easy, indolent writing”. .. Nevertheless, it was a great success, The Book Society choice in England and America.’ (Nicolson.)
There is much here to absorb: the restriction of freedoms for women on many levels, an attack on wealth existing side by side with poverty, a mockery of class prejudice by using the canine example of the rigid rules of supposed dog perfection maintained by dog clubs, and examples of Woofs famous stream of consciousness techniques. Passage after passage is a delight to read. For instance, after solemnly reminding us that we cannot understand the world of smell as does a dog, Woolf then gives us a tour de force description of Florence by smell and texture. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and determined to read more of Woolf’s work. There is nothing to be afraid of here. Except tyrant fathers. And dog nappers.
*Virginia Woolf, by Nigel Nicholson, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London 2000.
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