Great Books: Virginia Woolf’s Flush: A Biography

  • Themes: Great Books

The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel is the subject of this unexpectedly profound and witty book.  

An interior view of Monk's House, East Sussex, the writer Virginia Woolf's country home and retreat.
An interior view of Monk's House, East Sussex, the writer Virginia Woolf's country home and retreat. Credit: The National Trust Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo

Flush  has never been taken as seriously as Orlando  or Mrs Dalloway  or indeed any of Virginia Woolf’s other books. It is, after all, a biography of a spaniel. Spaniels do not need rooms of their own or lessons in Greek, nor are they inclined to express views that humans deem worthy of commemoration. But Flush is the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, and as a biographical subject, he is as interesting as any priapic scholar or king.

Flush  was first published in 1933, two years after  The Waves  and eight years before Woolf’s suicide at the age of 59. It was, as Woolf’s diaries reveal, a struggle to write. One might assume that she intended it as an oblique study of Barrett Browning herself, but insofar as it is a biography of the poet at all, it is an unashamedly narrow one. Literary success is of minimal interest to dogs. The literary success of other writers was seldom a cause for celebration by the doggedly competitive Woolf either. In her portrait of the dog, we get a dog’s portrait of the human — the scent of a woman, a flurry of alarming emotions — and only a shadow of the writer.

Elizabeth Moulton Barrett, as she was then, received Flush as a puppy from the author Mary Russell Mitford in 1842. At the age of 36 she was still living with her parents at 50 Wimpole Street in London, receiving her meals on trays and struggling to eat. She had sustained a spinal injury in her teenage years, and lung problems kept her indoors throughout the colder months. She called herself ‘a recluse,’ but she was a ubiquitous recluse, to be spotted in the pages of literary magazines from Edinburgh to New York and on bookshelves everywhere in between.

Woolf’s quietness on Moulton Barrett’s literary status reflected the insignificance the poet attached to fame when her life felt otherwise empty and monotonous. Flush feels her inner loneliness — there is ‘a likeness between them’ — and Barrett Browning finds in Flush something more than he can possibly be. She watches him as he gazes at his reflection in the mirror: ‘He was a philosopher, she thought, meditating the difference between appearance and reality.’ Woolf feeds the image of his intelligence to wittily deceiving proportions: ‘But suppose Flush had been able to speak — would he not have said something sensible about the potato disease in Ireland?’ They grow into each other, but not quite enough.

That Flush is a stand-in for a lover is obvious from early on. Woolf was startled by a description, probably sourced in Barrett Browning’s writings, of the dog kissing his mistress ‘expressively.’ It is not too far-fetched to say that Flush sees himself in the romantic role. Robert Browning had begun to pursue Barrett Browning by letter after developing a passion for her poetry. ‘The hooded man’ then takes the liberty of calling on her in the afternoons and filling the room with his unfamiliar smell. Flush despises him, bites him, earns his mistress’s scorn for the first time. He sees the change in her as she falls rapidly in love. Contrary to what she thinks, he does not act disproportionately. Woolf, always an astute literary critic, recognised how love-blind Barrett Browning had become. Flush is not ‘of the Byronic school’ of histrionics. He simply feels side-lined and jealous.

Browning was six years Barrett Browning’s junior, and had failed to capitalise upon his initial success as a writer. Woolf might have been snide — she often was — but instead she let Flush do the sniping. We cannot warm to the suitor for as long as Flush merely pretends to warm to him in order to regain his mistress’ trust. The uneasiness of the relationship between ‘that man’ and dog lingers to the very end of the book.

Woolf has often been called a snob, and not without justification, but in  Flush  she realises the vanity of the British class system. Much is made of Flush’s superior pedigree in the opening pages ­— spaniels are members of the ‘aristocracy of dogs,’ the rank of ‘Gentleman,’ according to Sir Philip Sidney, and Flush is a particularly fine example of the breed, with clear eyes and a rounded rather than a ‘top-knot’ skull. But it quickly becomes apparent that his pedigree counts for very little beyond certain areas of London.

Flush is snatched from outside a shop and carried to an insalubrious quarter of the city. There is the most brilliant mood-change at the midpoint of the biography as Woolf peers beneath the veneer of Flush’s usual surroundings: ‘Splendid buildings raised themselves in Westminster, yet just behind them were ruined sheds in which human beings lived herded together above herds of cows — ‘two in each seven feet of space.’’ Status proves to be similarly surface-deep.

After Browning and Barrett marry, they move to Italy — Pisa then Florence — where Flush’s pedigree is as irrelevant as an Englishman’s class. There is such beauty in Woolf’s portrayal of the transported gentleman, rudderless, unchained and out of sorts. Flush is liberated: he chases mongrels, lies in the sun. Yet something has changed. In love, his mistress (the word remains appropriate) has recovered and begun to feel more like herself again, but the sad consequence of this is that Flush has declined. He may be wanted, but he is no longer needed. He is vindicated in his lifelong pessimism. The disparity between his stalled development and the seemingly endless progress of a new rival, the couple’s baby, is heart-breaking.

Not every dog’s-eye view of the world could be as emotive and incisive as the spaniel’s. As Woolf says of Flush, ‘He could read signs that nobody else could even see.’ A cat-lover’s heart is not easily won by a canine, but I am in thrall to  Flush  in all its precocity and wit, and maintain that it must be read as ravenously as any of Woolf’s works, all the more so when the cold bites.


Daisy Dunn