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Thursday, April 21, 2011

A life in service of others: looking for and finding dignity

Virginia Woolf- Flush: A Biography
This book is a departure from Virginia Woolf's groundbreaking style experiment. If you find yourself becoming a little bit restive or impatient while floating on Mrs. Dalloway's stream of consciousness, this book will restore your equanimity. Woolf wrote it as a way to “ease her brain” after the intense effort she put into writing “The Waves”. It was meant to be a light thing, and she predicted that it would sell in embarrassingly large numbers, and that she would “very much dislike the popular success of Flush”.  It did end up to be her best-selling book during her lifetime, but today it is largely forgotten. So Virginia's fears were groundless: Flush didn’t end up taking away anything from her reputation as a serious writer. I hope she’s pleased.
Flush was the name of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, and Woolf relates the love affair and marriage of those two celebrated poets (Barrett and her equally gifted husband Robert Browning) through the consciousness of a dog. Flush was given to Elizabeth by an acquaintance who admired her poetry, and he spent his early years curled up on Elizabeth’s sickbed, keeping her company during her time as an invalid in her father’s house, throughout her courtship and elopement with Browning, and their subsequent life in Italy. For source material Woolf relied largely upon Barrett Browning’s letters and her own close observation of her pet spaniel, Pinka. She allowed her fertile imagination and prodigious intelligence to do the rest. The style of the book is straightforward and direct, very much how a dog would tell his story if given the opportunity. Woolf manages to make you inhabit the canine consciousness of Flush, not in a cutesy or trivial way, but with seriousness, keen insight, and with considerable wit.
The book opens with a brief history of the ancient origins of the Spaniel breed, and mockingly compares the “aristocracy of dogs” with that of humans, raising questions as to what constitutes “noble birth” in men and dogs—the curled tail, the light nose, or the coat of arms? Flush conforms to the strict guidelines of the British Kennel Club, so we know he’s sufficiently well bred to make a suitable companion for a lady. We note the change in Flush’s fortunes when he moves from the country to the elegant house on Wimpole St (“as long as Wimpole Street remains, civilization is secure”), where the smells of roast beef wafting from the kitchen combine with the scent of furniture polish & Oriental carpets to let his canine intelligence know that he is in a different world now. We learn about Flush’s new home the same way he does, through his senses.
We understand the rage and jealousy felt by Flush when that interloper, Mr. Browning, comes between him and his mistress, and we sympathize as he does his best to get rid of the usurper, even going so far as to bite him on the ankle. To no avail. Flush has to learn his place. We feel his terror and loathing on the occasion of his being kidnapped by “hairy ruffians” and held for ransom. And when Elizabeth and Robert go to Italy, we share in his joy at the foreign sounds and smells, and the newly discovered freedom of running off the leash with the Italian dogs, who, to Flush’s surprise, are all mongrels. No breeding or pedigree at all!  
A dog lover’s book if ever there was one, “Flush” is an amalgam of animal story and biography, but it’s better than both.

More on the subject of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Flush the dog has a supporting role in the next book, too, but he doesn't come off nearly as well.

Margaret Forster - A Lady's Maid, published 1991  
Told from the point of view of Lily Wilson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s maid, who devoted her life to the invalid poetess' care, moving with her to Italy and caring for her until Barrett's death. The life of a lady's maid in the 1800's was without question a hard one. Being "in service" usually meant a lifetime of sacrifice and servitude. Enmeshed in a complicated relationship with Browning that at various times encompassed the roles of nurse, go-between, advisor, confidant, friend, and servant, Lily demonstrates her loyalty again and again, even helping Elizabeth defy her father's wishes and carry out her elopement with Robert Browning. Yet Lily (who is called “Wilson” by her mistress) is not permitted to pursue her own desires for love, a husband, and a family, but must sublimate all of her own needs in the care of a querulous and controlling employer, whom she nevertheless loves deeply.  
The aspects of the book that interested me the most were the love story between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, and the unyielding class divisions that existed in Victorian times, even among the intellectual elite.  I thought the author dealt with the latter very successfully. There was none of that smug and superior 21st century sensibility looking back at a less enlightened age, as is sometimes the case with historical novels.

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