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Wednesday 4 February 2015

Reading Woolf: Flush

This is going to be a very short review, because I didn’t really like Flush at all. In fact I read it in a single day, perhaps not in the best frame of mind as my son was in A&E having been run over by a cyclist (my son’s fault, as it happens). Fortunately my son was fine, but the book wasn’t. Sorry Mrs. Woolf, not your best.

Flush is the story of a cocker spaniel dog, the property of the renowned poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (famed for the lines “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”). Through Flush we learn something of the life of EBB and her relationship with fellow poet Robert Browning whom she married against the wishes of her family, resulting in her disinheritance. Flush walks a fine line between representing the life of the dog, his jealousies and desires, against the backdrop of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s life. I’m not sure the balance is entirely right. What we know of Flush’s life has been constructed by Woolf from Barrett Browning’s various correspondences. There are some apparent inaccuracies, but not knowing much about Elizabeth Barrett Browning beyond her poetry, I wouldn’t have know this had it not been pointed out in the introduction.
We join Flush at the beginning of his life, born to the family of Barrett Browning’s contemporary Mary Russell Mitford. Mitford gave Flush to the sickly Barrett Browning as a companion, and at first Flush was excessively spoiled: fed delicacies from Elizabeth’s plate, fussed over and kept indoors. At first Flush chafes against this treatment, but later he learns to love it, to recognise his spoiled nature. Everything changes, however, when Elizabeth starts corresponding with Robert Browning. Suddenly her affections turn and Flush finds himself in the cold.

Perhaps the most significant incident in the book is Flush’s kidnapping at the hands of a Whitechapel gang. Elizabeth Barrett Browning pays a ransom for him, against the wishes of both her family and Robert. There is the sense that this event affects both Flush and Elizabeth Barrett Browning intensely. Following this Elizabeth and Robert marry in secret then escape to Italy where Flush is free to roam again.

That’s pretty much the crux of the story. Barring the Whitechapel event it’s all very pedestrian and there’s not a great deal to grab the attention. Consequently I found myself quite bored reading this book. It lacked the power, the intensity of others of Woolf’s work like, say, To the Lighthouse which also focuses on quite a small event but is different entirely in character. Instead Flush is a fussy book, a little formless and lacking Woolf’s keen eye and insight to lift it beyond being a mildly interesting view of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s life. There were elements of the book I intensely disliked, for example the focus on Flush’s ‘breeding’ and class, and I get the sense that Woolf was trying very hard to make this a book from a dog’s perspective without really giving serious thought to how different that perspective would be. Consequently it is a book that feels too heavily overlaid with human concerns and one wonders why she didn’t simply write a book about Elizabeth Barrett Browning as that would, I think, have made a much more interesting subject.

In the end Flush felt like a failure. It’s not a terrible book, but it’s not a particularly good one either. In reading Woolf’s diaries it is apparent that at the time of writing and editing Flush she was also absorbed in writing The Pargiters (what became The Years) and perhaps because of this Flush feels like an interlude, thrown out, perhaps, to bring in some income whilst Woolf worked through the difficulties in bringing The Years to life. A huge disappointment following The Waves and perhaps not surprising that Woolf herself referred to it as a ‘silly little book’, an opinion I’m not in disagreement with.

Flush receives a disappointed 4 out of 10 Biis. 

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