“He Smelt”: Virginia Woolf, Flush

FlushWhere Mrs. Browning saw, he smelt; where she wrote, he snuffed.

Is there anything more fun, as a reader, than recognizing as you read how much fun the author was having? This is the joy, for me, of reading Dickens – not all the time, but whenever he abandons any pretense of trying to tell us his story in as plain and direct a way as possible and goes spinning off into the kind of “excesses” that other readers just find tedious It’s also the great joy of Woolf’s Orlando, which “feels ebulliently excessive and joyfully disorderly.”

It is a shame that the common perception of Woolf is so dour: her depression and suicide dominate the story most people know about her (see The Hours, for instance). One of the not-so-incidental pleasures of Holtby’s memoir is that Holtby didn’t know how Woolf’s life would end and so the book is full of curiosity and optimism about the future. “She is in love with life,” Holtby wrote, free of the painful irony that description now evokes;

It is this quality which lifts her beyond the despairs and fashions of her age, which gives to her vision of reality a radiance, a wonder, unshared by any other living writer.

This is a long way around to what will actually be very brief comments on a very short book, Woolf’s tiny “biography” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel Flush.

This little book is the very definition of a literary bagatelle. The concept will either charm you or strike you as irredeemably twee, but in either case I suspect Woolf’s own embrace of it will win you over completely. For one thing, the whole exercise of looking at the world from a dog’s point of view is something Woolf pulls off with panache, reaching as far as she dares towards Flush’s own doggy experience while always acknowledging that we mere humans can never really know what it’s like to experience the world as a dog:

To describe his simplest experience with the daily chop or biscuit is beyond our power. Not even Mr Swinburne could have said what the smell of Wimpole Street meant to Flush on a hot afternoon in June.

I’m a cat person, not a dog person, but I still thought Flush was a pretty good boy. I enjoyed the way Woolf traced his changing emotions, especially as they were filtered through his loyalty to “Miss Barrett” and his resentment of other creatures who come between them.

flush2And this brings me to the other thing I really liked about Flush, which is the clever way Woolf conveys the daring and intensity of the romance between EBB and Robert Browning. Flush is keenly sensitive to changes in his mistress’s mood and the progress of her feelings for Browning – from keen but uncertain interest to expanding confidence to love – is beautifully conveyed through Flush’s peripheral and often peevish point of view:

He shifted his position at Miss Barrett’s feet. She took no notice. He whined. They did not hear him. At last he lay still in tense and silent agony. The talk went on; but it did not flow and ripple as talk usually flowed and rippled. It leapt and jerked. It stopped and leapt again. Flush had never heard that sound in Miss Barrett’s voice before – that vigour, that excitement. Her cheeks were bright as he had never seen them bright; her great eyes blazed as he had never seen them blaze.

Flush is stolen (in real life, apparently not just once but three times!), and that incident is full of peril and drama; Miss Barrett elopes with her devoted lover, and it’s the smells of Italy that most excite Flush – but we can tell, all the same, how EBB’s life has expanded. They are both much happier away from their safely muffled existence on Wimpole Street.

The story has a sad ending, as it must, but Woolf does Flush’s death so delicately it sounds more like a quiet caress: “He had been alive; he was now dead. That was all.” Flush, we learn from Woolf’s notes, is the only member of the Browning household actually buried at Casa Guidi in Florence – a fit resting place for such a good boy!

2 thoughts on ““He Smelt”: Virginia Woolf, Flush

  1. Tredynas Days August 29, 2020 / 3:35 am

    I remember finding this more on the twee side when I read it many years ago – but maybe I was a more intolerant reader then. I just read Sigrid Nunez, The Friend, the best account of a human-dog relationship I’ve come across so far.

  2. Kerry Clare (@KerryReads) September 1, 2020 / 3:57 pm

    This is lovely. I have not read FLUSH, but find that Woolf’s work is so infused with a sense of real joy—there is as much light as there is dark, which is plenty.

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