Reading Klara and the Sun brought Flush, Virginia Woolf’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel to my mind. I had never read the whole book, I’d heard part of it on the radio, and I remembered that I felt the same emotion then as I did when I read Ishiguro’s story. So I spent 77p and downloaded Flush to my Kindle.
What kind of book is it? A book about a dog? Partly. Just as Kazuo Ishiguro’s book is partly a story about an android. An examination of human behaviour, as seen by another species? Again partly. Like Ishiguro’s android Klara, Flush is bred (rather than programmed), then trained to be dependent on, and to yearn for, the approbation of ‘his’ humans; and he is destined to be let down by them. Woolf allows him to describe, never to judge – that is up to the reader. A criticism of social issues? Certainly. Woolf considers issues of both Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s day, and her own.
Flush is engaging, loveable and occasionally pathetic – in that his state induces pathos in the reader. Woolf describes in detail his change in circumstances when Flush is taken from the country to be given to Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB) in Wimpole Street. But she makes no reference to the inevitable effects on a young dog’s health, figure and digestion when exercise is reduced to decorous, leashed walks in the park, and diet consists of chops, rice pudding and cream.
It’s a foolish reader who goes to Virginia Woolf for advice on canine exercise and diet. Woolf tells us that Flush becomes more ruminative, and catalogues the dog’s observations of Robert and Elizabeth’s love affair. She makes Flush determined to please EBB, lets him learn from experience. After he has failed to drive Robert Browning away, despite two attempts to bite his leg, Flush repents, regains EBB’s favour and resolves never to bite again.
Flush endures imprisonment in London, then enjoys freedom in Florence and Pisa. He observes desperate London poverty when he is stolen from Wimpole street. (I was shocked when I read Woolf’s note that the real Flush was taken and held for ransom three times. I felt myself turn into Lady Bracknell, and wanted to exclaim that to lose one’s spaniel once was unfortunate but …) We are led to infer that in Italy, where class distinctions are not so rigid (or maybe not observed, in both senses, by English ex-patriots), it is safe for Flush to play in the streets with the dogs he finds there. Flush’s breeding is described in a parody of a Victorian copy of Who’s Who. Flush happily throws away his heritage, precisely specified by the kennel club, and consorts with those whose parentage is unknown. Woolf describes the effect of the consequent attack of fleas on Flush, but doesn’t mention them biting his owner.
Flush is neglected by EBB when she falls in love with Robert Browning, and again when she is drawn into spiritualism. Flush is not fooled by rocking tables; he mourns his owner’s neglect. Like Ishiguro’s Klara, Flush settles outside (preferring dappled shade to Klara’s necessary Sun) and waits to be wanted. He is given one last spurt of energy, a race back to demand and achieve attention, love and reconciliation with EBB. Flush’s character would have forgiven EBB for her neglect, I don’t think his chronicler did. EBB enjoyed both a room of her own and an independent income, those prerequisites Virginia Woolf insisted were required for a woman to be able to write. Woolf quotes EBB only once, maybe because Flush, being a spaniel, could not appreciate poetry, but possibly that is not the only reason.
Will I read the book again? Yes – to see the world as it appeared through Woolf’s eyes in 1933 and to read her beautifully constructed sentences. It is an easy read – Woolf -lite, you might say – but the wonderful, immersive streams of consciousness are there, leading from one idea, one experience to another – and taking the reader on the same journey.