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Flush : a biography by Virginia Woolf
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Flush : a biography (original 1933; edition 1995)

by Virginia Woolf

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Title:Flush : a biography
Authors:Virginia Woolf
Info:Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1995.
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Flush: A Biography by Virginia Woolf (1933)

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In the mid-1850's, the poet Elizabeth Barrett was gifted a spaniel by her friend Mary Mitford. She later immortalized her companion in her poem, "To Flush, My Dog" -

Loving friend, the gift of one,
Who, her own true faith, has run,
Through thy lower nature;
Be my benediction said
With my hand upon thy head,
Gentle fellow-creature!

In 1933, Virginia Woolf published FLUSH. On one level it is a pseudo-biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's spaniel, with information from the poet's letters and other collected writings. On another level, the book is a critique of then-modern English society. The way Woolf writes Flush's interior monologue, and because Flush is non-human, he is a continual foreigner in his world. This canine naiveté allows Woolf to comment on the socioeconomic and class divides that were so prevalent in England at the time.

When Mary Mitford brings Flush to London to live with Elizabeth Barrett, the dog has difficulty adjusting to his new surroundings. He wishes to run and explore, but is forcefully taught that he should be content to sit quietly unless being taken for a walk on a chain leash. The methods in which Flush's innate, wild, spaniel ways are tamed so that he will fit into life in London, function as a metaphor for the ways that women are trained to behave as the patriarchal society deems appropriate.

When Flush is dognapped, Woolf uses the event as a way to illustrate some of the marked differences between English social classes. Flush observes the dire squalor in which he now finds himself, and remarks upon the violent behaviors of those who have stolen him away and required a ransom payment for his return. With limited opportunities for them to be educated and therefore earn a living, the community of people in the slum of St. Giles have turned to extortion of the rich in order obtain money to survive. When Flush makes comparisons between the brutal slum and the comfortable, richly-appointed home with Elizabeth, you can see the author commenting on London poverty and classism.

When Elizabeth and her husband, Robert Browning, move to Italy, Flush remarks on the canine societal differences between that country and England. Most of all, he notices that all dogs are equal; there are no hierarchies based on breed, lineage, or conformity to a standard. This is, of course, allegorical to the author's views of English aristocracy as being absurd and based not on merit but on the luck of who one's parents happen to be.

FLUSH is a short novel, but a very effective one. Through the narrative on the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's pet spaniel, Virginia Woolf is commenting on all aspects of early twentieth century English society. Although race is not mentioned outright in the novel, issues of class, income, and feminism are at the forefront. ( )
  BooksForYears | Nov 29, 2016 |
In the mid-1850's, the poet Elizabeth Barrett was gifted a spaniel by her friend Mary Mitford. She later immortalized her companion in her poem, "To Flush, My Dog" -

Loving friend, the gift of one,
Who, her own true faith, has run,
Through thy lower nature;
Be my benediction said
With my hand upon thy head,
Gentle fellow-creature!

In 1933, Virginia Woolf published FLUSH. On one level it is a pseudo-biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's spaniel, with information from the poet's letters and other collected writings. On another level, the book is a critique of then-modern English society. The way Woolf writes Flush's interior monologue, and because Flush is non-human, he is a continual foreigner in his world. This canine naiveté allows Woolf to comment on the socioeconomic and class divides that were so prevalent in England at the time.

When Mary Mitford brings Flush to London to live with Elizabeth Barrett, the dog has difficulty adjusting to his new surroundings. He wishes to run and explore, but is forcefully taught that he should be content to sit quietly unless being taken for a walk on a chain leash. The methods in which Flush's innate, wild, spaniel ways are tamed so that he will fit into life in London, function as a metaphor for the ways that women are trained to behave as the patriarchal society deems appropriate.

When Flush is dognapped, Woolf uses the event as a way to illustrate some of the marked differences between English social classes. Flush observes the dire squalor in which he now finds himself, and remarks upon the violent behaviors of those who have stolen him away and required a ransom payment for his return. With limited opportunities for them to be educated and therefore earn a living, the community of people in the slum of St. Giles have turned to extortion of the rich in order obtain money to survive. When Flush makes comparisons between the brutal slum and the comfortable, richly-appointed home with Elizabeth, you can see the author commenting on London poverty and classism.

When Elizabeth and her husband, Robert Browning, move to Italy, Flush remarks on the canine societal differences between that country and England. Most of all, he notices that all dogs are equal; there are no hierarchies based on breed, lineage, or conformity to a standard. This is, of course, allegorical to the author's views of English aristocracy as being absurd and based not on merit but on the luck of who one's parents happen to be.

FLUSH is a short novel, but a very effective one. Through the narrative on the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's pet spaniel, Virginia Woolf is commenting on all aspects of early twentieth century English society. Although race is not mentioned outright in the novel, issues of class, income, and feminism are at the forefront. ( )
  BooksForYears | Sep 14, 2016 |
My favorite biography. This short novel/biography is about Elizabeth Barret Browning's dog, and it cites its sources. Fanciful, humorous, but still meaningful, and it has my favorite ending paragraph of any book I've read so far. ( )
  valzi | Sep 7, 2016 |
I have been looking forward to reading Flush for months, and I really wasn’t disappointed. Written in the period after Virginia Woolf had completed writing The Waves; which she had found so draining Flush, is a complete joy. Flush – for those who don’t know – is a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, a cocker spaniel that was her constant companion, both before and after her marriage to Robert Browning. The book is a combination of fiction and non-fiction, through which we meet the two nineteenth century poets, revealing something of the early years of their marriage.

Although it appears so much lighter in tone than many of her other works, Flush does in fact consider social inequalities and the way that society treated and classified its women. Virginia Woolf employs her famous stream of consciousness style to explore women writers, through the point of view of a small, spoiled brown dog. Apparently Woolf drew her inspiration from the two poems that Elizabeth Barrett Browning published about her dog. What is amazingly well done, is how Woolf manages to convey a depth of feeling and understanding between Flush and his mistress – which anyone who has had any kind of relationship with a dog – maybe with any animal will find utterly charming. There has been a suggestion that Virginia Woolf uses this animal perspective, to explore the similarities between herself and Elizabeth Barrett. This is something Sally Beauman, in her preface to this Persephone edition, certainly asks the reader to consider as being the subtext to this book.

Flush was given to the invalid Elizabeth Barrett by Mary Russell Mitford, another spinster writer. At this period Elizabeth Barret was very much the invalid, subject to her father’s control, and Flush curls himself up at the feet of his new mistress and in doing so becomes as confined to the house as she already is.

“Oh Flush!” said Miss Barrett. For the first time she looked him in the face. For the first time Flush looked at the lady lying on the sofa.
Each was surprised. Heavy curls hung down on either side of Miss Barrett’s face; large bright eyes shone out; a large mouth smiled. Heavy ears hung down on each side of Miss Flush’s face; his eyes, too, were large and bright: his mouth was wide. There was a likeness between them. As they gazed at each other each felt: Here I am—and then each felt: But how different! Hers was the pale worn face of an invalid, cut off from air, light, freedom. His was the warm ruddy face of a young animal; instinct with health and energy. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? She might have been—all that; and he—But no. Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other. Then with one bound Flush sprang to the sofa and laid himself to where he was to lie ever after—on the rug at Miss Barrett’s feet.”

In puppyhood in the Mitford home, Flush had had fields and space to run in, but in Wimpole Street at the feet of Elizabeth Barrett he becomes a pampered little pooch, who finishes the rich foods that Miss Barrett can’t manage. Flush’s comfortable incarceration in Wimpole Street mirror Elizabeth Barrett’s own. Enter Robert Browning, initially in frequent letters arriving at Wimpole Street. Flush can sense as each letter arrives the change that is coming to the house, and that of his mistress’s demeanour. As Robert Browning becomes a more fixed presence. Visiting in secret more and more often, the relationship between Flush and his adored Miss Barrett begins to change. Flush resents the figure of Robert Browning so much he resorts to showing his teeth.

“Sleep became impossible while that man was there. Flush lay with his eyes wide open, listening. Though he could make no sense of the little worlds that hurled over his head from two-thirty to four-thirty sometimes three times a week, he could detect with terrible accuracy that the tone of the words was changing. Miss Barrett’s voice had been forced and unnaturally lively at first. Now it had gained a warmth and an ease that he had never heard in it before. And every time the man came, some new sound came into their voices –made grotesque chattering; now they skimmed over him like birds flying widely; now they cooed and clucked, as if they were two birds settled in a nest; and then Miss Barrett’s voice rising again, went soaring and circling in the air; and then Mr Browning’s voice barked out its sharp, harsh clapper of laughter; and then there was only a murmur, a quiet humming sound as the voices joined together.”

As the relationship with Robert Browning develops Elizabeth Barrett finds strength she didn’t have before, her health improves, and on an excursion to a nearby shop, she loses sight of Flush for a second. Flush is kidnapped, held for ransom by a criminal gang. ebband flushHolding the spoilt, pets of fine ladies was a lucrative, and disgusting enterprise for these gangs at this time, and none of the men in Elizabeth Barret’s life to whom she appealed for help, thought the ransom should be paid. In the placing of the streets where these gangs operate so close to Wimpole Street, Woolf contrasts two very different sections of nineteenth century London. This interest in various sections of society is certainly something we have seen before. Bravely, and with steely determination Elizabeth Barrett takes matters into her own hands to secure Flush’s freedom. Again we have mirroring, in Flush’s freedom and Elizabeth Barrett’s. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning elope, and upon their marriage travel to Italy – where they will live in exile as it were, following Elizabeth’s dis-inheritance by her furious father. Here – but for a short trip back to London a few years later, Flush lives for the rest of his life, again tasting something of the freedom he had known as a young pup on the streets of Italy.

It is probably a given that Flush is beautifully written, it is lighter in tone, more accessible than some Woolf works no doubt, but there is surprising depth of emotion too. Flush is an absolute joy of a book, I wanted it to be far longer than it was. The Brownings are a fascinating couple, and somehow viewed through the eyes of this darling little dog they become more real, more human, than biographies often are able to make their subjects. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Jul 26, 2016 |
If you have felt awed and reluctant to read Virginia Woolf, whose novels do suffer from the reputation of being intellectual or difficult, it might be refreshing to try some of her later work. While strream-of-consciousness is supposedly a very free style, characterised by impulsiveness and lack of restraint, some readers experience Woolf's early novels as experimental and confusing.

However, Virginia Woolf also has a very humouristic side to her, which, combined with a virtuous command of the language had led to the creation of some very fine prose, such as in the autobiographical Moments of Being. Some of Woolf's non-fiction is also of lasting impressions, particularly recommendable there would be the short, but very fine essays in The London Scene, published in 1931. Readers who would dismiss Flush. A biography, published in 1933, as a silly story about a dog, should think twice. Actually, the book is a very clever biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 – 1861) was one of the most important Victorian English poets. She was weak and sickly from an early age, a condition which improved when she moved to Italy in the 1840s. Out of admiration for her poetry, the British poet Robert Browning started a correspondance with her, secretly courting, and eventually marrying her. She took an interest in the social cause, and was a follower of the progressive ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft.

Readers of Woolf's Flush. A biography would be largely aware of the biography of
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, although she had died 70 years earlier. Woolf's book puports to be the biography of Barrett Browning's dog, which in some sense it is. Elizabeth Barrett Browning did own a dog, Flush, which was given her by her friend Mary Russell Mitford, and many of the incidences described in the biography really occured. Based on letters and other documents, Woolf reconstructed and described the life of the dog.

This is done with a great deal of humour, and empathy. The unique perspective, that is to say, the world from the viewpoint of a dog, is remarkably, cleverly well-done. There is a great amount of detail in describing noise, odours, and colours. But dogs and also very good at sensing the mood of their owners, and the mood and life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning shines through in every part of the book.

As a pedigree spaniel, Flush was a very aristocratic dog, and its life in the household at Wimpole Street reflects that social states. The social agenda of poverty in the slums of London sneaks into the book in the episode which describes how Flush was kidnapped for ransom. After all, the life time of Flush was the high time of publication of Charles Dickens. Flush. A biography has quite some characteristics of the rags-and-riches, or prince-and-pauper style fiction, and also forms a prelude to the later famous The Hundred and One Dalmatians by the English novelist Dodie Smith.

All in all, Flush. A biography is a very poetic biography of particular interest to readers who enjoy literary criticism, cultural history, and particularly biography describing the inspirational part of the Victorian era, and its light-footed escape to Pisa and Florence. ( )
3 vote edwinbcn | Feb 22, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (25 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Woolf, Virginiaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Alfsen, MereteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bell, VanessaCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Eachus, JenniferCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Light, AlisonEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Scalero, AlessandraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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It is universally admitted that the family from which the subject of this memoir claims descent is one of the greatest antiquity.
Quotations
He saw - the most astonishing sight conceivable There was Miss Barrett on a
rock in the midst of rushing water. Trees bent over her; the river raced
round her. ... Flush splashed through the stream and reached her. "He is
baptized in Petrarch's name", said Miss Barrett as he clambered up on to the
rock by her side. For they were at Vaucluse; she had perched herself upon a
stone in the middle of Petrarch's fountain.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Haiku summary
Poet and spaniel
Prefer sunny Florence to
A room of their own
(thorold)

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0156319527, Paperback)

This story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Flush, enchants right from the opening pages. Although Flush has adventures of his own with bullying dogs, horrid maids, and robbers, he also provides the reader with a glimpse into Browning’s life. Introduction by Trekkie Ritchie.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:29 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Woolf's biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's spaniel was what she called 'a little escapade'. For all its fun and frivolity, Flush is none the less a work seriously inclined to mock and question the genre of biography.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 2 descriptions

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