Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Flush: Books of the Times

Through all her days as a novelist Virginia Woolf has been straining to burst the trammels that are the accepted limitations of most writing people. In her famous Hogarth pamphlet, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” read before the Heretics Society at Cambridge, she launched a formidable attack upon the reputation of Arnold Bennett. The novelist of the Five Towns, she granted, was an adept at knowing the kind of house Mrs. Brown lived in, the trams in which she rode, the dishes and spices upon her table, the flowers in her window box, the news in the daily papers she read; but where, asked Mrs. Woolf with a note of mock supplication, was the essential Mrs. Brown, the real Mrs. Brown?

If the world has generally returned an answer compounded of the question of jesting Pilate and the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley, that has not prevented Mrs. Woolf from pursuing her psychological inquiries through many novels from “Jacob’s Room” to “Orlando.” She has tried to reduce fiction to a poetical record of “states of consciousness” – and her success has varied precisely as the individual reader varies in regarding subjective floating images or the concrete dishes and spices upon the table as the more “real.”

In her efforts, sometimes agonized, to get at the hidden core, the inner springs, of life, Mrs. Woolf must often have felt the inadequacy of mere words. And in “Flush,” which is a brilliant biographical tour de force that brings the cocker spaniel of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to life, she confesses as much. In seeking to record the states of consciousness of a dog, Mrs. Woolf is more successful, it seems to us, than she ever was at adumbration of the psychic life of human beings.

And the reason is easy to see: a cocker spaniel sees, feels, hears and smells – all without the use of classifying language. Mrs. Woolf can present the world of Flush as a delicious or a fearful floating spectacle of scent, sight and sound – and there is no great need of orderly Arnold Bennettish catalogue.

“It must be admitted,” says Mrs. Woolf, “that there are very few authorities for the foregoing biography.” We do not know exactly when Flush was born, but we do know that he came into the possession of Miss Barrett of Wimpole Street in the Summer of 1842. He lived with her in an atmosphere of eau de cologne in the back bedroom, forgetting his romps and is hare hunts to become the solace of the invalid poet of “Sonnets From the Portuguese.” When Robert Browning came to call, the jealous Flush twice bit him in the leg, but Robert forgave such patent devotion to Elizabeth. And, in time, the jealousy was transmuted to affection, as Flush became the Brownings’ dog in the bright air of Florence and the Apennines.

Flush consuming Elizabeth Barrett’s chicken and rice pudding, Flush stolen and hidden in a Whitechapel slum, Flush sniffing the Spring breezes in Regent Park, Flush growling at Robert, the suitor; Flush sick on a Channel boat, Flush lying in the hot Italian sun, Flush made wild by the redoubtable Tuscan fleas, ands Flush dying after a particularly frightening dream – all this serves as excuse for some of Mrs. Woolf’s most sensitive writing. “Not a single one of his myriad sensations ever submitted itself to the deformity of words,” says Mrs. Woolf of Flush; and in recreating primitive dog consciousness Mrs. Woolf has a holiday that all but releases her, the civilized woman of Bloomsbury, from bondage to “the deformity of words.” She doesn’t have to describe Florence in particularizing terms of the Uffizzi galleries, the bridges over the Arno, the paintings of Giotto; instead, like Flush, she can know it in its essentials of “marmoreal smoothness” and “its gritty and cobbled ro! ughness ***.” She romps with primitive sensation as Flush must have romped over the bean fields near Reading before he went to live with the Barretts in stuffy London.

This is not a “cute” book for those who like to swoon over pets. Mrs. Woolf does no yearning over Flush. The life of the dog gives her an opportunity to indulge in some delicious Shandyesque writing, in contrarious non sequiturs for the sake of rambling off the path. There is one paragraph of amused humor which fixes Wimpole Street forever in its nineteenth century setting; it is the familiar essay at its best, hidden away in a book about a dog.

In the notes which she tucks away at the back Mrs. Woolf wanders into a discussion of “the demure, the most inhumanly correct British maids who were at that time the glory of the British maids who were at that time the glory of the British basement.” She also muses over the Carlyles’ dog, Nero. Did Nero jump from the top floor at Cheyne Row in a canine attempt at suicide? Did Tamas get on his nerves? Or was he merely pursuing a bird? Mrs. Woolf wonders, in this connection, whether dogs, like their masters, can be divided into Elizabethan, Jacobean, Hanoverian and Victorian dogs – whether, in short, a history of civilization could be presented from a dog’s-eye view. If it is so to be presented, we hope Mrs. Woolf will do it.

The charm of Flush is so great that it leads one away form the Brownings. This book is, obliquely, a retelling of the most famous Victorian romance among the poets; and Mrs. Woolf would be the one to give that story its final fillip by glimpsing it from a dog’s point of view.

Mrs. Woolf’s “Flush” is not the only “Flush” on the market this Fall. In “Flush of Wimpole Street and Broadway” (McBride, $1.50), Flora Merrill has told the story of the spaniel who “created” the role of Flush in the Katharine Cornell play, “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.” An appealing enough dog story, “Flush of Wimpole Street and Broadway” is none the less something of a come-down after Virginia Woolf. Elizabeth Barrett’s letters to Robert about the original Flush are woven into the actor Flush’s story; by these the reader may observe how Mrs. Woolf has used reality as the basis for fantasy and whimsy. | By JOHN CHAMBERLAIN

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