Monday, 24 August 2009


Persephone Books are the types of books that go wonderfully well with a cup of tea in the other hand and this afternoon I curled up with Flush by Virginia Woolf (the first sitting occurred in bed this morning -another indulgence) in my cosy grey top and a mug of Earl Grey.

Flush is a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's (the Victorian poet) cocker spaniel, Flush, so not what you would expect from Virginia Woolf and yet also radical in its own way in her characteristic stream of consciousness style. Woolf was inspired by a 1930 edition of the love letters exchanged between the Brownings and the appearance of "their dog made me laugh so I couldn't resist making him a Life." Comedic and charming, the novella is far removed from Woolf's Modernist and seminal texts, but I love both. It is an illuminating insight into Woolf' lighter side and her mocking sense of humour, attributes that are often overlooked when considering such a great writer.

We first meet Flush in 1840 when he belongs to Mary Mitford, who then presents him to her friend, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whom he lives with as a companion until his death in 1854. The narrative follows the relationship between Flush and his owner through courtship, kidnap, and a move to Italy, with many amusing incidents including a bad case of fleas. On the surface an absorbing and lovely tale of a dog it is also an allegory of class and the status of women (and female poets) in Victorian society; Flush is a shameless snob, absurdly obsessed with breeding, and he is also tamed and house-trained. The ways in which Woolf draws comparisons are very subtle and she employs Elizabeth Barrett Browning's only biographical history in order to do it; the feminist slant the work begins to take is hardly surprising in relation to Woolf. Experimental and progressive, Woolf considers the relationship between [wo]man and her best friend and the communication barriers; she also observes the Modern world and city through the eyes of Flush.

Flush is entertaining, cleverly creative, and wonderfully written with passages of distinct beauty, typical of Woolf.

The passage that amused me most:

They entered the bedroom. There was a faint bleating in the shadowed room - something waved on the pillow. It was a live animal. Independently of them all, without the street door being opened, out of herself in the room, alone, Mrs Browning had become two people. The horrid thing waved and mewed by her side. Torn with rage and jealousy and some deep disgust that he could not hide, Flush struggled himself free and rushed downstairs.


Green Road said...

This sounds very funny. I usually find Virginia Woolf's works very heavy going, so this looks like a departure from her usual style.

Book Psmith said...

I read some wonderful essays by Woolf this year and wanted to read more of her work...I think Flush might be a good place to start. I have always wondered how dogs see the world and although this is a human's perspective of a dog's perspective, it sounds like fun.

Anonymous said...

This sounds really good - not what I'd expect a Woolf book to be like. I haven't actually read anything by her, but, after reading this review, I might go out there and change that!

Karen said...

I so wish I was joining in this challenge! It sounds wonderful. I am definitely taking myself to the Persephone bookshop when I am in London!

mel said...

This sounds like a really fun book-thank you for posting on it.

claire said...

I thought about reading this for the challenge because of VW, but am not really a fan of books (especially movies) told from an animal's perspective. However, your review made me think twice. I might just pick it up one day, and mostly because of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

On a non-Persephone note: Have you received a 10% off voucher from The Book Depository? I just splurged on 3 of VW's white penguins, as I already have the fourth! Now I have all her white penguins.. so I might do them all in one month. And add Leonard's The Wise Virgins, probably, as it's one Persephone I so want to read soon!

verity said...

I haven't yet read this one, and in fact shockingly I haven't read any Woolf so it would probably be a good one to start with!

Paperback Reader said...

Swati, it is definitely a departure from her usual style.

Book Psmith, Woolf's essays are great (of course A Room of One's Own is outstanding) and I love her fiction. I think this would be a great, accessible place to start, especially with an interest in a dog's fictionalised perspective.

anothercookie, VW is funny anyway at times but you definitely detect it more obviously in Flush. I definitely think it would make an easy starting point and then you need to read her other 'biography', Orlando, which is also very funny.

Karen, you can join us for the next one and your trip to shop will prepare you for that!

Mel, you're welcome and thanks for commenting.

Claire, I was going to mention in my post about enjoying stories (books or movies) told from an animal's perspective. Charlotte's Web is my favourite children's book!

I am attempting to resist the lure of the 10% discount... although you have reminded me that The Voyage out is the one Woolf novel that I don't own. I really want to read the novels that I haven't of hers soon.

I'd love to see a photo of all of the white VW Penguins when you receive them! There should be a review of The Wise Virgins by one of the participants later in the challenge for you to read. It's not one that I am desperate to read just now but that will probably change!

Verity, I am shocked! This would be a very good one to start with then, especially as it's another Persephone read too.

Anonymous said...

A book about someone's dog that has a character who a) has an alliterative name and b) has the surname Mitford... officially must own this book!

Paperback Reader said...

Simon, I can't ascertain whether Mary Mitford was any relation to the later Mitfords but she was also a writer...
I love alliterative names too!

Nymeth said...

This sounds absolutely fantastic - all the more so because I'm fond of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Your description reminds me of Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller - another funny dog-related novella with a feminist slant.

Paperback Reader said...

Ana, I thought this would appeal to you. I'm not au fait with EBB myself; I prefer Christina Rosetti.
I will need to find out more about Carmen Dog as I don't know it.
I am very much looking forward to your review of Saplings.