Although Flush is subtitled A Biography, much of Flush’s life is by necessity fictionalized. In terms of accurate biography, the book is much more an account of the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It is, after all, through references to Flush in her letters and her poems about him (“To Flush, My Dog” and “Flush, or Faunus”) that her readers know of his existence. Flush was Barrett’s companion through a pivotal point in her life, so the events of his life were shaped by those of hers. Nevertheless, the story is that of Flush, not of his owners.
In his 1983 preface to the book, Trekkie Ritchie indicates that the model for Flush was Woolf’s own cocker spaniel, Pinka. Woolf was an owner of dogs throughout most of her life, yet she never exhibited sentimentality toward them. Certainly the author of Flush was a close observer of canine life. A dog’s sensory perceptions, especially those of smell, crowd the pages. Flush is an animal, and the reader is never permitted to overlook that fact in reading his story.
Flush inhales the mingled odors of food, dust, and furniture polish as he first enters the Barrett household, and he glories in the smells of garlic, grapes, and leather in the Italian marketplace. When Flush is kidnapped, he is distressed by extreme thirst. When he is returned to his owner, he ignores her affectionate greeting and runs to his purple water vase. The sense of sight, on the other hand, brings little physical pleasure to the dog, and Barrett herself notes that the scenery of the Italian mountainside means nothing to Flush or to her infant son. Woolf records well the discomfort that Flush experiences when the Italian fleas attack him, as well as both the...
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Woolf did not have a young adult audience in mind when she wrote Flush. The work came about as a result of her own interest in dogs and her reading of the Browning letters. Nevertheless, the book has become popular in high schools as a companion to the study of the Brownings’ poetry in eleventh or twelfth grade English classes. The lives of the Brownings, a pair of famous lovers, hold a certain fascination for readers of all ages, but especially for teenage readers who are first becoming aware of the beauty of both love and poetry. Much of Barrett’s poetry was written while Flush was lying at her feet. Her Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), which is part of the canon of most high-school English literature textbooks, was composed during the period of rivalry between Flush and Browning. Her extended poem Aurora Leigh (1857), which describes life in the slums of London, was drawn from the memory of Barrett’s trip to the Whitechapel district of London in an effort to bargain with Flush’s kidnappers.
In creating the biography of Flush, Woolf leaves out the emotion and the sentimentality that accompany a human love affair. Flush sees his owners as their actions and attitudes affect him, not as they see each other. Presenting the events from the dog’s viewpoint is an unusual yet effective way of gaining readers’ attention and allowing them to understand the Brownings’ relationship from a perspective that is less emotional than their poetry. Flush, combining both fact and fiction, provides enjoyable reading and useful supplementary material for the teenage student of English literature.