By Viola van de Sandt
Most people know that Flush is the title of Virginia Woolf’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel. Here are five things, however, you might not have known about this delightful book.
1. Woolf starting writing Flush after finishing her long novel The Years. In a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell, she writes: ‘I was so tired after the Waves, that I lay in the garden and read the Browning love letters, and the figure of their dog made me laugh so I couldn’t resist making him a Life’.
2. Academics have interpreted Flush in many different ways. Perhaps most surprisingly it has on one occasion even been compared to the Jack the Ripper murders. Susan Squier argues that Flush’s ‘kidnapping and imprisonment, with its horrible motif of the threatened package of his head and paws, implicitly recalls the murders of Jack the Ripper’.*
3. Virginia Woolf often referred to herself by animal names. She called herself ‘Billy’, ‘Goat’ or ‘Ape’ in her correspondence to her sister and brother, and signed a thank-you letter to a favourable reviewer of Flush with ‘Yours affectionate old English springer spaniel Virginia’.
4. The model for Flush was the puppy Pinker. The dog was given to the Woolfs in 1926 by Virginia’s friend and lover Vita Sackville-West.
5. Although Flush is nowadays often seen and discussed as hardly more than a humorous writer’s holiday, the work does raise questions about human relations with animals. In her obituary ‘On a faithful friend’, Woolf writes in 1904 that ‘There is something, too, profane in the familiarity, half contemptuous, with which we treat our animals. We deliberately transplant a little bit of simple wild life, and make it grow up beside ours, which is neither simple nor wild’.
* Susan Squier, Virginia Woolf and London: The Sexual Politics of the City. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1985 (p. 127).
Viola van de Sandt is a postgraduate student in English literature at King’s College, London. She loves writing about women in English and American novels, and does exactly that on her own blog, ‘Broken Glass’.
Image: Portrait of Virginia Woolf, c. 1917, public domain.