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Illustration from the original 1933 edition

It is universally admitted that the family from which the subject of this memoir claims descent is one of the greatest antiquity — Woolf’s opening sentence, much Austen allusion in this fun book.

What is not biography — is nothing at all — Stanislaw Brzozowski

Dear friends and readers,

We might regard this as an unusual foremother poet blog for Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61). One of the people class asked me if I would recommend this as a biography. Yes, to start with. Perhaps for Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855) too.


From the same edition, the way photographs of Vita Sackville-West dressed in costumes of different ages are scattered throughout Orlando

This and last week I read and discussed it with a class of older adults. We had a very good time with it. We discussed it as a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning through the eyes of her dog (anticipating Margaret Forster’s Lady’s Maid, about how EBB’s life impinged on, used up and was seen through Wilson, her lady’s maid). Thus it’s about the life experience of a 19th century woman attempting to be a serious writer and feminist and ruled over, contained by men and imprisoning conventions. It is also her ripost to The Barretts of Wimpole Street (as Mantel’s Wolf Hall is hers to Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons).

As the viewpoint is most of the time a cocker spaniel’s and every attempt is to make see and feel the world as a dog might — smell, feel, emotions of loyalty, attachment, sheer joy in bodily exercise. Why not call it an original modern animal study, about the marginalized, beings not thought worthy commemorating — as not sufficiently representing the general experience of men. Remember too the classic Canadian animal story, Beautiful Joe, and at the same time Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, and the great animal studies by women, Goodall, Galdikas, Fosse and Sy Montgomery.

Flush is also Pinka, a dog given Woolf and Leonard by Vita Sackville-West who figures so centrally in Orlando. Pinka became Leonard’s dog and was much loved.

It ought to be listed with the other original modernist biographies discussed by Andre Maurois. It fits his criteria: artful — it has exquisitely alive description all psychologized through the presence of a consciousness attributed to Flush. It is scientific, with documentable proof. Letters the life-blood of this form are its basis: EBB and Browning’s courtship correspondence as it’s come to be called. The autobiography of Miss Mitford is here. A complex presence in complex circumstances. Flush learns to discount hierarchy. He learns just around the solidity and middle class order, luxury beauty of the houses, lie dangerous slums, people waiting to prey on “innocent” men, come from say from the ballet.
Identification: the writer is reliving some secret need or desire. EBB’s illness began in Torquay (and Cornwall meant much to Woolf); she too needed to overthrow her father, both poets. Much fictionalizing: Flush’s dreams, his talk with other dogs, but also utterly convincing as he (dramatic irony) slowly lives through what we know is about to happen. Women poets, it’s been shown, identify with small animals.

And for its beauty of style, which is as lovely as Orlando.

There are five acts, from which I quote to convey something of the experience of the book.

1. Three Mile Cross: Flush’s genealogy, heritage (broadly satiric and amusing), a description of his younger years, of his attachment to Queen Anne. This includes a brilliant sketch of Miss Mitford herself, to whom Flush was much attached

[from his life with Miss Mitford] Since the Mitfords had fallen on evil days–Kerenhappock was the only servant–the chair-covers were made by Miss Mitford herself and of the cheapest material; the most important article of furniture seems to have been a large table; the most important room a large greenhouse–it is unlikely that Flush was surrounded by any of those luxuries, rainproof kennels, cement walks, a maid or boy attached to his person, that would now be accorded a dog of his rank. But he throve; he enjoyed with all the vivacity of his temperament most of the pleasures and some of the licences natural to his youth and sex. Miss Mitford, it is true, was much confined to the cottage. She had to read aloud to her father hour after hour; then to play cribbage; then, when at last he slumbered, to write and write and write at the table in the greenhouse in the attempt to pay their bills and settle their debts. But at last the longed-for moment would come. She thrust her papers aside, clapped a hat on her head, took her umbrella and set off for a walk across the fields with her dogs. Spaniels are by nature sympathetic; Flush, as his story proves, had an even excessive appreciation of human emotions. The sight of his dear mistress 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 smoothed themselves out, excited him to gambols whose wildness was half sympathy with her own delight. As she strode through the long grass, so he leapt hither and thither, parting its green curtain. 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 bean-fields. 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. Off he flashed like a fish drawn in a rush through water further and further. He forgot his mistress; he forgot all humankind. He heard dark men cry “Span! Span!” He heard whips crack. He raced; he rushed. At last he stopped bewildered; the incantation faded; very slowly, wagging his tail sheepishly, he trotted back across the fields to where Miss Mitford stood shouting “Flush! Flush! Flush!” and waving her umbrella …

How distraught he was when she sold him (she couldn’t afford him) and the door slams in his face.

II: The back bedroom: this intensely limited life. Flush learns to live in close confinement. He gives up much for the love of EBB.

Why, Miss Barrett wondered, did Flush tremble suddenly, and whimper and start and listen? She could hear nothing; she could see nothing; there was nobody in the room with them. She could not guess that Folly, her sister’s little King Charles, had passed the door; or that Catiline, the Cuba bloodhound, had been given a mutton-bone by a footman in the basement. But Flush knew; he heard; he was ravaged by the alternate rages of lust and greed. Then with all her poet’s imagination Miss Barrett could not divine what Wilson’s wet umbrella meant to Flush; what memories it recalled, of forests and parrots and wild trumpeting elephants; nor did she know, when Mr. Kenyon stumbled over the bell-pull, that Flush heard dark men cursing in the mountains; the cry, “Span! Span!” rang in his ears, and it was in some muffled, ancestral rage that he bit him.

Flush was equally at a loss to account for Miss Barrett’s emotions. There she would lie hour after hour passing her hand over a white page with a black stick; and her eyes would suddenly fill with tears; but why? “Ah, my dear Mr. Horne,” she was writing. “And then came the failure in my health . . . and then the enforced exile to Torquay . . . which gave a nightmare to my life for ever, and robbed it of more than I can speak of here; do not speak of that anywhere. Do not speak of that, dear Mr. Horne.” But there was no sound in the room, no smell to make Miss Barrett cry. Then again Miss Barrett, still agitating her stick, burst out laughing. She had drawn “a very neat and characteristic portrait of Flush, humorously made rather like myself,” and she had written under it that it “only fails of being an excellent substitute for mine through being more worthy than I can be counted.” What was there to laugh at in the black smudge that she held out for Flush to look at? He could smell nothing; he could hear nothing. There was nobody in the room with them.

III: The Hooded man. The coming of Browning: Woolf imagines Flush imagining Browning. Flush is there, looking on, and participates in EBB’s erotic liberation, it will threaten the status quo, the 8th of July – we can’t know how hurt the dog was, but he is stolen, snatched, kidnapped (Tuesday 1 September), at the book’s end. Both chapters conclude with Flush distraught before human power. Browning did wear lemon-colored gloves (dandyish).

But one night early in January 1845 the postman knocked. Letters fell into the box as usual. Wilson went downstairs to fetch the letters as usual. Everything was as usual–every night the postman knocked, every night Wilson fetched the letters, every night there was a letter for Miss Barrett. But tonight the letter was not the same letter; it was a different letter. Flush saw that, even before the envelope was broken. He knew it from the way that Miss Barrett took it; turned it; looked at the vigorous, jagged writing of her name. He knew it from the indescribable tremor in her fingers, from the impetuosity with which they tore the flap open, from the absorption with which she read. He watched her read. And as she read he heard, as when we are half asleep we hear through the clamour of the street some bell ringing and know that it is addressed to us, alarmingly yet faintly, as if someone far away were trying to rouse us with the warning of fire, or burglary, or some menace against our peace and we start in alarm before we wake–so Flush, as Miss Barrett read the little blotted sheet, heard a bell rousing him from his sleep; warning him of some danger menacing his safety and bidding him sleep no more. Miss Barrett read the letter quickly; she read the letter slowly; she returned it carefully to its envelope. She too slept no more.

Again, a few nights later, there was the same letter on Wilson’s tray. Again it was read quickly, read slowly, read over and over again. Then it was put away carefully, not in the drawer with the voluminous sheets of Miss Mitford’s letters, but by itself. Now Flush paid the full price of long years of accumulated sensibility lying couched on cushions at Miss Barrett’s feet. He could read signs that nobody else could even see. He could tell by the touch of Miss Barrett’s fingers that she was waiting for one thing only–for the postman’s knock, for the letter on the tray. She would be stroking him perhaps with a light, regular movement; suddenly–there was the rap–her fingers constricted; he would be held in a vice while Wilson came upstairs. Then she took the letter and he was loosed and forgotten.

IV: Whitechapel. Now here we have the important kidnapping and the elopement: the London outside that upper middle class: Taylor the head. Flush like a hostage in a concentration camp. Filthy, bad food, no water, others dying around him. Each day added on. He fears for his life.

He lay, not daring even to whimper, hour after hour. Thirst was his worst suffering; but one sip of the thick greenish water that stood in a pail near him disgusted him; he would rather die than drink another. Yet a majestic greyhound was drinking greedily. Whenever the door was kicked open he looked up. Miss Barrett–was it Miss Barrett? Had she come at last? But it was only a hairy ruffian, who kicked them all aside and stumbled to a broken chair upon which he flung himself. Then gradually the darkness thickened. He could scarcely make out what shapes those were, on the floor, on the mattress, on the broken chairs. A stump of candle was stuck on the ledge over the fireplace. A flare burnt in the gutter outside. By its flickering, coarse light Flush could see terrible faces passing outside, leering at the window. Then in they came, until the small crowded room became so crowded that he had to shrink back and lie even closer against the wall. These horrible monsters–some were ragged, others were flaring with paint and feathers–squatted on the floor; hunched themselves over the table. They began to drink; they cursed and struck each other. Out tumbled, from the bags that were dropped on the floor, more dogs–lap dogs, setters, pointers with their collars still on them; and a giant cockatoo that flustered and dashed its way from corner to corner shrieking “Pretty Poll,” “Pretty Poll,” with an accent that would have terrified its mistress, a widow in Maida Vale. Then the women’s bags were opened, and out were tossed on to the table bracelets and rings and brooches such as Flush had seen Miss Barrett wear and Miss Henrietta. The demons pawed and clawed them; cursed and quarrelled over them. The dogs barked. The children shrieked, and the splendid cockatoo–such a bird as Flush had often seen pendant in a Wimpole Street window–shrieked “Pretty Poll! Pretty Poll!” faster and faster until a slipper was thrown at it and it flapped its great yellow-stained dove-grey wings in frenzy. Then the candle toppled over and fell. The room was dark. It grew steadily hotter and hotter; the smell, the heat, were unbearable; Flush’s nose burnt; his coat twitched. And still Miss Barrett did not come.

We see the men and Browning too want her not to pay the kidnapper and argue, it is encouraging black mail. What emerges is they don’t care about the dog, the individual life. We see the courage and pluck it took Charlotte to drive away by herself and retrieve her (by that time) beloved dog.

We are told that Flush never mastered the principles of human society – neither have I — real debate over what this phrase means – is it principle or a life and lives that matter. I’m on the side of live and banks too, and so as EBB and Wilson, the climax of he book and prelude to elopement and Flush’s unsentimental education; what he wants is clean water – but there is now another world out there Flush knows about – a third world.

How slowly the dog moves from attack to attachment towards Browning; he notices the boots set aside; Miss EBB is gone all morning and returns exhausted; then the marriage in London and escape.

V: Italy. This is a long chapter which includes Flush’s re-juvenation, and so thethe birth of Robert whom they called Pen and the return to England and back is so intensely important. -– a new life, the new physical place, the new culture, new weather. Here dogs are different but not differentiated by status and class.

Flush’s new found independence, — they are all liberated now, her sewing heralds the coming of the baby (in life EBB had something like 4 miscarriages. Flush resumes the very happy adult dog life in Italy that he had with Miss Mitford — until he encounters flees. His hair must be shaved.

Flush had lain upon human knees and heard men’s voices. His flesh was veined with human passions; he knew all grades of jealousy, anger and despair. Now in summer he was scourged by fleas. [7] With a cruel irony the sun that ripened the grapes brought also the fleas. “. . . Savonarola’s martyrdom here in Florence,” wrote Mrs. Browning, “is scarcely worse than Flush’s in the summer.” Fleas leapt to life in every corner of the Florentine houses; they skipped and hopped out of every cranny of the old stone; out of every fold of old tapestry; out of every cloak, hat and blanket. They nested in Flush’s fur. They bit their way into the thickest of his coat. He scratched and tore. His health suffered; he became morose, thin and feverish. Miss Mitford was appealed to. What remedy was there, Mrs. Browning wrote anxiously, for fleas? Miss Mitford, still sitting in her greenhouse at Three Mile Cross, still writing tragedies, put down her pen and looked up her old prescriptions–what Mayflower had taken, what Rosebud. But the fleas of Reading die at a pinch. The fleas of Florence are red and virile. To them Miss Mitford’s powders might well have been snuff. In despair Mr. and Mrs. Browning went down on their knees beside a pail of water and did their best to exorcise the pest with soap and scrubbing-brush. It was in vain. At last one day Mr. Browning, taking Flush for a walk, noticed that people pointed; he heard one man lay a finger to his nose and whisper “La rogna” (mange). As by this time “Robert is as fond of Flush as I am,” to take his walk of an afternoon with a friend and to hear him thus stigmatised was intolerable. Robert, his wife wrote, “wouldn’t bear it any longer.” Only one remedy remained, but it was a remedy that was almost as drastic as the disease itself. However democratic Flush had become and careless of the signs of rank, he still remained what Philip Sidney had called him, a gentleman by birth. He carried his pedigree on his back. His coat meant to him what a gold watch inscribed with the family arms means to an impoverished squire whose broad acres have shrunk to that single circle. It was the coat that Mr. Browning now proposed to sacrifice. He called Flush to him and, “taking a pair of scissors, clipped him all over into the likeness of a lion.”

As Robert Browning snipped, as the insignia of a cocker spaniel fell to the floor, as the travesty of quite a different animal rose round his neck, Flush felt himself emasculated, diminished, ashamed. What am I now? he thought, gazing into the glass. And the glass replied with the brutal sincerity of glasses, “You are nothing.” He was nobody. Certainly he was no longer a cocker spaniel. But as he gazed, his ears bald now, and uncurled, seemed to twitch. It was as if the potent spirits of truth and laughter were whispering in them. To be nothing–is that not, after all, the most satisfactory state in the whole world?

Note the last sentiment. We are hearing Woolf.

At book’s close there is the joke Nero jumped out of the window because he couldn’t take those angry silences between Carlyle and Jane. In later years Woolf writes of this Jane and her relationship with Geraldine (Jewsbury) brilliantly.

VI: The end: Coda: Flush’s old age – Flush rightly suspects as frauds the new spiritual mediums Elizabeth enjoys. His care for her is too concerned, too for real care. Here we pick up on how Robert Browning and EBB had their strains. Flush’s aging, tiring, and then disappearance from the record. He predeceased her. The book ends with EBB’s poem to him. Alas, over-written:

You see this dog. It was but yesterday
I mused, forgetful of his presence here,
Till thought on thought drew downward tear on tear;
When from the pillow, where wet-cheeked I lay,
A head as hairy as Faunus, thrust its way
Right sudden against my face,—two golden-clear
Large eyes astonished mine,—a drooping ear
Did flap me on either cheek, to dry the spray!
I started first, as some Arcadian
Amazed by goatly god in twilight grove:
But as my bearded vision closelier ran
My tears off, I knew Flush, and rose above
Surprise and sadness; thanking the true Pan,
Who, by low creatures, leads to heights of love.

Flush was buried beneath Casa Guidi; EBB’s remains are in the Protestant cemetery in Florence, and Browning’s in Westminster Abbey. Why is Flush’s life not set next to Maurois’s of Shelley, Scott’s of Zelide, Zweig of Mary Queen of Scots (just as deeply dreamed). Because “who is interested in a dog?” said another class member.

Woolf’s delightful annotations and notes follow: Wilson’s life caught here. Lily (fell in love with a guardsman who did not stay true to her. But marry she must so she chose a man-servant in the Browning’s house. No document about what happened to him. In later years she takes care of one of Browning’s ancient poet friends; very later as widow living with Pen. The safest thing was to be loyal. Why are there no servants’ lives in the ODNB?

So I propose to add Virginia Woolf’s brilliant tour-de-force of a modernist biography, Flush: A Biography to the canon. 1842-1858? I liken it to Anthony Trollope’s wrongly neglected When the Mastiffs went to Iceland, a political social and ethnographic study disguised a jeux d’esprit travel book.

Ellen

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