Published in 1933
Flush by Virginia Woolf was the readalong book for Jessie’s event, which suited me perfectly. I would have liked to read a second of the gorgeous grey-covered books, but time is pressing at the moment and happily, Flush is both short and delightful. The perfect read to open my 20 Books of Summer list.
I did not have the Persephone edition. The photo above is from Penguin’s Vintage Lives series; I have this version on my Kindle. But I also ordered a copy from the library. My library copy looks quiet and unassuming, patiently waiting with a companion to be returned to the reserve store.
But inside it’s special. Printed in 1960 by Chatto & Windus, who took the Hogarth Press under their auspices in 1947, it sports that thick matt paper which is rarely found in modern books now. (Persephones are printed on wonderful paper too: theirs is thick, but smooth and pristine white. Part of my pleasure in Persephones is the enhanced reading experience offered by the quality of the paper.)
Open my library copy and this is the sight that greeted me: the good old-fashioned library system of an actual ticket in its little envelope!
And stamps on the library sheet, revealing its many travels. Is it just me who has a hankering for the old system? I was immediately transported to my primary school years. In my final year I was school librarian – a position of great responsibility and prestige. I had responsibility for the box containing the borrowers’ tickets and I got to stamp books as they were borrowed and replace books correctly on the shelves. How I loved it! (Until I got hauled over the coals for the most minor transgression which really wasn’t my fault. The trauma remains with me to this day. I digress…)
The downside of this nostalgic discovery in my library copy of Flush is that the rather special endpapers are defiled. The drawings by Virginia Woolf’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, are not visible. Never mind, thought I, they will be on the back inside cover as well…
Imagine my shock! WHY was that white sticker wantonly stuck across part of the drawing? (‘Real’ librarians, if anyone knows, please enlighten me.) So, just a portion of Bell’s endpapers to savour but that’s better than nothing. All of which is a preamble almost as long as the little book itself.
Flush is the fictional biography of the spaniel given to Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1840. Through Flush we learn of Elizabeth’s years of ill health, spent cloistered in her bedroom and of her clandestine courtship with the poet Robert Browning, their elopement and subsequent years abroad, living very happily in Italy. We also learn of Flush’s ancestry, of his happy puppyhood in the country with Miss Mitford and his acclimatisation to life in a darkened bedroom. We hear about his jealousy of Mr Browning, his horrific dognapping and the torments inflicted by Italian fleas.
Flush is often described as a ‘light’ book: a word used by Woolf herself. In the Persephone forum piece on Flush, Woolf is quoted from her diary of 1932: ‘I shall take up Flush again to cool myself’ which implies that she used it as balm, some light relief. In fact, she refers to Flush frequently in her diaries at this time and invariably the references are negative. Four days after that December reference she writes:
‘I must write off my dejected rambling misery – having just read over the 30,000 words of Flush and come to the conclusion that they won’t do. Oh what a waste – what a bore! Four months of work and heaven knows how much reading – not of an exalted kind either – and I still can’t see how to make anything of it… Much good in it but would have to be much better… I can’t get back into Flush ever, I feel… I took it up impetuously after The Waves by way of a change: no forethought in me: and so got landed: it would need a month’s hard work – and even then I doubt it…’ The whole experience, she says, plunges her into one of her ‘grey welters’. (A Writer’s Diary p.191)
On January 21st she writes: ‘Well, Flush lingers on and I cannot dispatch him. That’s the sad truth. I always see something I could press tighter or enwrap more completely. There’s no trifling with words – can’t be done: not when they’re to stand “forever”.’ Finally on January 26th: ‘Well, Flush is, I swear, dispatched. Nobody can say I don’t take trouble with my little stories.’ (A Writer’s Diary p.194)
It’s fair to add that Virginia describes similar struggles with all her novels. None of her writing came easily. But I do wonder if she regretted writing Flush. Certainly it’s less radical in style and hence more accessible. Perhaps she felt that in Flush she was failing to break new ground. I would suggest though, that it’s a delightful way into Woolf’s writing. And for me at least, Virginia’s pain and effort were very worthwhile.
I loved Flush. It’s a joy to read: a warm, witty and affectionate book and beautifully written. It brought Dickens to mind in its rollicking descriptive passages – except that Virginia is describing the world through the eyes – and nose – of a dog. We have a canine perspective on nineteenth century town and country, and in the latter chapters, Italy.
Here is Flush in his puppyhood, walking with Miss Mitford in the country:
The cool globes of dew or rain broke in showers of iridescent spray about his nose; the earth, here hard, here soft, here hot, here cold, stung, teased and tickled the soft pads of his feet. Then what a variety of smells interwoven in subtlest combination thrilled his nostrils; strong smells of earth, sweet smells of flowers; nameless smells of leaf and bramble; sour smells as they crossed the road; pungent smells as they entered beanfields. But suddenly down the wind came tearing a smell sharper, stronger more lacerating than any – a smell that ripped across his brain stirring a thousand instincts, releasing a million memories – the smell of hare, the smell of fox.
I shall never look at a dog ambling about in the countryside in quite the same way.
Immediately I came to know Flush, my hitherto well-controlled yearning for a dog of my own resurfaced. It must be a spaniel, I declared. Out and about, all I see are spaniels. I have previously owned two spaniel crosses. Neither relationship fared well. (No fault of the dogs, I must stress.) That doesn’t put me off. I try thinking about Robbie, the young chocolate spaniel who lives nearby and whose misadventures might fill a book of their own already… Flush still shines out: the pinnacle of doggie excellence; the exemplar of all that a dog should be. I know in my heart of hearts that I will not be getting a dog any time soon. But my yearning is testament to the joyous character Virginia Woolf created!
My only criticism is of the final dispatching of Flush. Not dispatching to the printing press, as Virginia references in her diaries, but his death, in Italy, at a suitably ripe old age. There is a touching connection between Flush and Elizabeth and reference to how much he gave to her and yet it felt abrupt; it was – perfunctory. Is it possible that this is an indication of how tired Virginia was of the whole enterprise? Knowing how meticulous she was and the high standards she sought to maintain, it’s hard to believe she was so fed up that she just wrote him off: he was old and tired; it was time for him to go; he’s gone.
“Flush!” she cried. But he was silent. He had been alive; he was now dead. That was all.
Whatever Woolf’s intention, I was sad to have it happen and wished for a little more ceremony (and the removal of the very final sentence, which follows the quote I’ve included above). Perhaps that stands as testament to the life that Virginia was able to breathe into her fictional biography of an animal. I truly cared about him.
A few final thoughts. Firstly, many thanks to Jessie for organising this event and apologies for this late post. (It was 90% completed when circumstances dictated that it be set aside.) I hope there will be a fourth Persephone bonanza in the future! Secondly, this is clearly a very personal response to reading Flush. There is much more to be said about the wider themes within the book which can easily be accessed elsewhere and are worth a read in their own right. Thirdly, reading Flush brought to mind Lady’s Maid by Margaret Forster, published in 1990: a novel which also recounts the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, this time through the eyes of her faithful maid, Lily Wilson. This is one of my favourite novels by Forster and I recommend it for anyone seeking an alternative view of the lives of the two romantically entwined poets. And lastly, I am left wanting to read – not the complete handbook of spaniel care – but the works of the wonderful Miss Mitford: Mary Russell Mitford who not only brought Elizabeth Barrett Browning to life through her friendship and generosity in pressing Flush upon her, but also achieved fame in her own right through her lively sketches of life in Three-Mile Cross, the village in which she lived and from where Flush had sprung.