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Flush: A Biography

Virginia Woolf: ‘Flush’, 2014, Aziloth Books. 130 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1909735651

Virginia Woolf must have been perplexed. She wanted to celebrate the romance of the poets, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. However, she was writing in 1936 and their story was already stale with telling and retelling. Rudolf Besier's play ‘The Barretts of Wimple Street’ had been produced in England in 1930. In America Katharine Cornell brought it to Broadway, and Elizabeth Barrett became her signature role. Then in 1934 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wrapped the story up with a movie directed by Sidney Franklin that closely followed the action of the play. But shopworn or not, this was one of the great Italo-Britannic stories of the 19th Century. It had a more congenial love-interest than Lord Byron’s escapade in Ravenna, was easier to remember than the British public’s infatuation with Giuseppe Garibaldi, and wasn’t coldly political like Westminster’s demonization of the Bourbons of Naples.

Maybe Woolf who had herself been slighted by a dominant father felt a particular sympathy for Elizabeth’s Barrett’s situation. But Woolf was a Twentieth Century writer, a subtle modernist, even a bit of a cultural snob who had found James Joyce crude. The author of high literary art in novels like ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ (1925) or ‘To the Lighthouse’ (1927), couldn’t bring herself simply to retail a rosy love story with fine-art trimmings. She had to give new life to the oft-told tale.

The dramatic elements were simple and strong. A daughter of an upper-class London family had been pressed by a stern father and her siblings to become the family invalid. She wasn’t reluctant to take on the role. Her health was in fact delicate and being sequestered in comfort did give her the leisure to exercise her literary gift. Success brought her to the attention of a prominent young poet. Bedside visits blossomed into a friendship that the visitor’s ardour soon turned into a proper Victorian courtship. Obstruction came from the young woman's pious and severe father, a classic control bully, who had marked out his daughter amongst his twelve children as permanently incapacitated. He would not change his mind while love changed his daughter’s. She left her sickbed to be married in secret and then eloped with her bridegroom.

They settled in an Italy all their own where the sun never set. The valetudinarian who used to be wheeled to Regent’s Park in a bathchair took on a new vigour. A happy marriage saw her leading a normal upperclass life in Pisa and Florence. She gave birth to a boy. Her writing continued apace, and she rivaled her husband in fame. Her own explanation for this personal transformation credited not only her marriage but Italy, its climate and way of life. Living there had let her throw off the the stiff constraints of Wimple Street.

Woolf’s way of telling the story afresh would come from a radical decision. Elizabeth had been consoled in her shuttered London life by the company of a cocker spaniel she called Flush. The novelist would view the epic marriage through the dog’s eyes. At this point, readers may shudder. Were we going to be entertained by anthropomorphic Walt Disney-ish cuties, tap-dancing mice and argumentative cats? It was a danger. But Woolf was a storyteller and couldn’t very well give us only a clinical, scientifically approved report on the limits of doggy perception. She does intervene and help Flush put his reactions in order and good prose. At times her biography of Elizabeth’s spaniel, a mixture of fiction and fact, makes us feel with shock how human and non-human life differ. Flush too was a tourist, but his tour was canine:

“Mr Browning wrote regularly in one room; Mrs Browning wrote regularly in another. The baby played in the nursery. But Flush wandered off into the streets of Florence to enjoy the rapture of smell. He threaded his path through main streets and back streets, through squares and alleys, by smell. He nosed his way from smell to smell; the rough, the smooth, the dark, the golden. […] Nor was his sense of touch much less acute. He knew Florence in its marmoreal smoothness and in its gritty and cobbled roughness. Hoary folds of drapery, smooth fingers and feet of stone received the lick of his tongue, the quiver of his shivering snout. Upon the infinitely sensitive pads of his feet he took the clear stamp of proud Latin inscriptions. In short, he knew Florence as no human being has ever known it; as Ruskin never knew it or George Eliot either. He knew it as only the dumb know. Not a single one of his myriad sensations ever submitted itself to the deformity of words.”

Peter Byrne

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