Flush, A Biography(New Yorker, 10/07/1933)
If you like dogs, you will like FLUSH; if you like dogs and the Brownings, you will be enraptured; but if you merely like Virginia Woolf, you will conclude that a cocker spaniel has never been the hero of a better-written book. It is Flush’s fortune, lucky dog, to receive this posthumous canonization from the hand of one of the finest living English stylists.” — Clifton Fadiman(The New Yorker)
Flush, A Biography(Review by Eve’s Alexandria)
Woolf is certainly no stranger to lampooning the biography, taking it to its extremes, highlighting the fallacy of its borders and yet still delivering a valid and captivating ‘life’. Like ‘Orlando’ before it, ‘Flush: A Biography’ is a playful memoir; charting the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most beloved Cocker Spaniel. Elizabeth Browning gave the eponymous Flush nothing short of a prominent role in much of her correspondence, usefully providing fodder on which a biographer can gorge at will. Upon reading the published letters of the Brownings it seems Woolf simply couldn’t resist.
‘Flush’ begins (in the tone of Genesis) by chronicling the origins of the Cocker Spaniel through a sweeping historical survey of dog breeds and pedigrees:
‘It is universally admitted that the family from which the subject of this memoir claims descent is one of the greatest antiquity. Therefore it is not strange that the origin of the name itself is lost in obscurity. Many million years ago the country which is now called Spain seethed uneasily in the ferment of creation. Ages passed; vegetation appeared; where there is vegetation the law of Nature has decreed that there shall be rabbits; where there are rabbits, Providence has ordained there shall be dogs. There is nothing in this that calls for question, or comment. But when we ask why the dog that caught the rabbit was called a Spaniel, then doubts and difficulties begin’.
Flush belongs to a Mrs Mitford, a dog breeder (and sometime writer), and spends his youthful years roaming the fields near their home in Reading. Mrs Mitford corresponds with a certain Elizabeth Barrett, a London lady, confined to her couch by a lingering hypochondrium – partly the result of her shaky temperament, partly the result of her father’s rather doleful and domineering presence. Mrs Mitford donates Flush as a gift to Miss Barrett and a lifelong love thus begins. Flush is forced to leave the green pastures and reside at the foot of his mistress on a soft couch, gobbling the finest titbits the prestigious house can offer. In his eventful life, he is kidnapped, held to ransom (this actually happened three times but Woolf only covers the final one), forced to jealously witness the courtship of his lady with Robert Browning, swept along in their elopement to Italy, brought back to London, taken back to Italy, and finally meeting his peaceful end in his accustomed spot, at his mistresses feet.
There is no denying that this is a playful work, riddled with wry humour and mock-heroics. Yet it is not without its more serious dimension. Flush is to Mrs Browning what Mrs Browning is to the world – something to be petted and made to look pretty, something to be denied its true nature and forced to sit in ease, not troubling itself with the cares of the world; something not be taken too seriously. Flush is forced ‘to suppress the most violent instincts of his nature’.
In 1931 (‘Flush’ was written in 1933), Woolf delivered a lecture entitled ‘Professions for women’, which, among other things offered a scathing attack on Coventry Patmore’s then famous ideal of Victorian womanhood, ‘the Angel in the House’. Patmore’s Angel was a woman utterly subservient to the needs of her husband (and master), pliant to his desires and intellectually dim enough not to question her ‘rank’. Woolf’s argument was that women should kill the Angel, take charge of their lives and eventually create their own mental space – indeed – a room of their own. When Flush is kidnapped and Elizabeth’s father rather callously ignores the ransom offer, Elizabeth Barrett, takes matters into her own hands and sneaks out to the unsavoury ‘headquarters’ of the gang that stole him, demanding to be sent the ransom again. It is this personal and independent act of bravery that Woolf’s marks as the changing point in Elizabeth’s life. From here, she starts to think and act for her own interests – even developing interests for herself in the first place is an act of self-serving autonomy as yet unexplored. Upon taking these first self-governing steps, she becomes much happier, overcomes her ‘illnesses’ and begins to live a life only previously dreamed of.
Victorian society more generally also suffers Woolf’s playful critique. Flush is born into pedigree status, though this is not without its regulations for acceptance. Light eyes are undesirable and to be born with a light nose alas ‘is nothing less than fatal’. This is a spoof of the rigid class structures in Britain at large. As Flush notes on arriving in Italy:
‘The dogs were different…though dogs abounded, there were no ranks; all – could it be possible? – were mongrels…Was there no law which decreed death to the topknot, which cherished the curled ear, protected the feathered foot, and insisted absolutely that the brow must be domed and not pointed? Apparently not. Flush felt himself like a prince in exile…’
The dog’s innocence is a cunning tool from which to explore the fallacies and pettiness of the social world. Robert and Elizabeth’s courtship is portrayed rather coolly, his over earnest concern satirised. The contrast between the prestigious ostentation of Wimpole Street is made to seem ludicrous against the squalor of the street in Whitechapel where Flush is taken following his kidnap. Yet as a ‘biography’ the book never looses sight of its focus and the loyal spaniel is affectionately pursued. The sharp reflexive biographical ‘asides’ and the social satire ensure it never descends into mere sentimentality.
Critics have famously avoided or scolded ‘Flush’. For the most part it is ignored in the critical canon and I doubt there are many courses that include it as required reading (mine didn’t…). In some ways I can see why, it is neither her best work thematically, nor her best in terms of plot or linguistic expression or experiment. I think with 100+ pages it is difficult to know where to categorise it in the Woolf oeuvre. It isn’t really minor fiction – it is too long, as a biography it perhaps deserves a separate category but as a biography of a dog, well that’s another problem. But all this seems a little tedious and unproductive. After finishing ‘The Waves’ Woolf stated she wanted to write something as a joke, as a play, much like ‘Orlando’ was ‘a holiday’ from the norm. Even after she had written ‘Flush’ and it had achieved much success (of all her books it sold the most in her lifetime…) she still referred to it as ‘a joke’ or ‘that silly book’. It was never intended to be a major work, and I think we should grant her the opportunity to play around with her pen from time to time.
‘Flush’ is enjoyable, playful, surreal, very funny and sardonically scathing of the social conventions and pretensions of the day. The prose is expert as always, and the protagonist tenderly captured in all his canine glory. It may not be among Woolf’s greatest works of art, but it deserves more attention that it has so far received.