Review: Flush, by Virginia Woolf

This is not your typical Virginia Woolf.  Written as a light break after finishing The Waves, Flush is a “biography” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel.  Drawing on Browning’s writing and other details of her life, Woolf imagines the life Browning’s dog must have led.  Being Flush’s life story, it is told entirely from his perspective.  His life began in the country, and he moved to London when Flush went to live with Elizabeth.  He adjusted to the confines of city life, and bonded with his new mistress.  But when Robert Browning began to call on Elizabeth, Flush felt excluded and jealous:

He resolved to meet his enemy face to face and alone. No third person should interrupt this final conflict. It should be fought out by the principals themselves. On the afternoon of Tuesday, the 21st of July, therefore, he slipped downstairs and waited in the hall. He had not long to wait.  Soon he heard the tramp of familiar footstep in the street; he heard the familiar rap on the door.  Mr. Browning was admitted. Vaguely aware of the impending attack and determined to meet it in the most conciliatory of spirits, Mr. Browning had come provided with a parcel of cakes. … Flush sprang upon his enemy with unparalleled violence.  (p. 67)

Flush gradually came to terms with Elizabeth’s relationship, survived the hazards of nineteenth-century London, and accompanied his owners to Italy when they married.  There he discovered new smells, and new types of dogs.  And when a baby arrived, he once again had to adjust to changes in the family.

A book like this is often dreadfully cute and silly.  But Flush is written by a master, who loved dogs and had a brilliant way with words.  The result is a delightful balance between fiction and non-fiction that makes for a delightful read.

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