“What a lark! What a plunge!” Mrs. Dalloway famously declares as she decides to buy the flowers herself. I could say the same about Flush: a Biography – a joyful account of the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog as he moves from the fertile fields of Reading to the silent, upholstered rooms of London society to the lush, lively terraces of Italy.
Despite being a Woolfian of some 25 years, I stupidly had never read Flush. While I love The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, as well as the letters and diaries, there’s much of Woolf I’m not so fond of: I actively dislike Orlando, am cool to the short stories and earlier works and, while I appreciate the essays in purely intellectual terms, they don’t carry the weight and meaning to me that her three great works do. (I need to reread The Years and Between the Acts to deliver a final verdict there, but wasn’t in love with them when I read them the first time.) Flush, I assumed, would fall into this category.
Thank goodness for Ali Hope, host of this year’s #WoolfAlong, for the kick in the keister I needed to finally read this lovely novel. For the July/August #Woolfalong, she suggested Orlando, Flush or a biography of Virginia Woolf; so, I thought, it’s now or never.
Below is the paragraph that won me over early in the book:
“There was a likeness between them. As they gazed at each other each felt: Here am I – and then each felt: But how different! Hers was the pale worn face of an invalid, cut off from air, light, freedom. His was the warm, ruddy face of a young animal; instinct with health and energy. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? She might have been – all that; and he – But no. Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other.”
There’s so much more I could quote – so much more warmth and charm and love – but it’s such a slight book that I don’t want to diffuse its effects. I will add, though, that it’s more than just a diversion: Woolf uses the book to address all manner of sociological issues, from the living conditions of the poor to the unnatural restraints on single women in Victorian society. These elements, combined with the way Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s own biography is portrayed through this canine lens, lend the book weight and dimension and its own peculiar kind of insight.
So now there only remains one more book of Woolf’s I haven’t read: the Roger Fry biography. I haven’t been much interested, and perhaps am even less so after reading Vanessa and Fry endlessly discussing painting in her Selected Letters, which I read last month. But my joyful, ecstatic experience reading Flush thinks I really have to give it a go.