After completing Mrs Dalloway, I intended for the next work to be read for The Reading Life Virginia Woolf Project to be Orlando. I knew from Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf that the character of Orlando was based on Vita Sackville-West, a very wealthy author and garden designer of aristocratic background and an intimate associate of Woolf. I decided I should read Victoria Glendining's highly rated biography, Vita, as a prelude to reading Orlando. (One of the wonderful thing about Virginia Woolf is simply the large number of fascinating people in her life.)
I was in the mood to read something a bit different, something quirky, funny but still brilliant. So I decided to read Flush-A Biography . Flush is a cocker spaniel owned by the great poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 to 1861), wife of another great poet, Robert Browning (1812 to 1889) Elizabeth Barrett Browning (a life long invalid) wrote the very famous and still much loved Sonnets From the Portuguese.
Flush is a very entertaining and funny book. It is not at all hard to understand or difficult. It is in part a satire of English preoccupation with social standing:
But if we are thus led to assume that the Spaniels followed human example, and looked up to Greyhounds as their superiors and considered Hounds beneath them, we have to admit that their aristocracy was founded on better reasons than ours. Such at least must be the conclusion of anyone who studies the laws of the Spaniel Club.
In the opening chapters of Flush most of the dog's time is spent in the bedroom of his mistress. Then one exciting day it is decided everyone will go for a walk outside. As one would expect of the dog of an invalid Flush begins to love the quiet life.
Naturally, lying with his head pillowed on a Greek lexicon, he came to dislike barking and biting; he came to prefer the silence of the cat to the robustness of the dog; and human sympathy to either. Miss Barrett, too, did her best to refine and educate his powers still further. Once she took a harp from the window and asked him, as she laid it by his side, whether he thought that the harp, which made music, was itself alive?
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.
When Flush finds out why Miss Barrett is so eagerly awaiting those letters you may be shocked to see the violence that results when Flush and the author of the letters, Robert Browning, get to know each other.
As the life of Flush proceeds we see how some of the servants mistreat him when his mistress is not around, we see how Flush adapts during a trip to Italy and we hold our breath when something terrifying happens to him.
I really cannot see how any one who enjoys a well written whimsical read would fail to enjoy Flush. We also learn a lot about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her relationship to her husband Robert Browning.