I think the only other biography of a dog I’ve read was Farley Mowat’s The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, an outright comic account of a highly unusual mutt. Flush, Virginia Woolf’s short biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, has more of a tongue-in-cheek seriousness that seems to call all biography into question. As an example, here is a note regarding the rumour that a neighbourhood dog had tried to commit suicide by jumping out of a high window:
Whether [Nero] wished to kill himself, or whether, as Mrs Carlyle insinuates, he was merely jumping after the birds, might be the occasion for an extremely interesting treatise on canine psychology. Some hold that Byron’s dog went mad in sympathy with Byron; others that Nero was drive to desperate melancholy by associating with Mr Carlyle. The whole question of dogs’ relation to the spirit of the age, whether it is possible to call one dog Elizabethan, another Augustan, another Victorian, together with the influence upon dogs of the poetry and philosophy of their masters, deserves a fuller discussion than can here be given it. For the present, Nero’s motives must remain obscure.
After that I dare not infer what Woolf’s motives were in writing this biography, but I would not be surprised if it were not partly to poke fun at the tendency of biographers to stray beyond the facts into the realm of pure speculation. That is not to say that Woolf is not interested in her subject. She does her best to get into the mind and experience of this dog, resulting in some delightful passages, two of which I’ve quoted here and here. Whether she gets it right, no one can say. The mystery of an animal’s mind and heart is open to any interpretation.
Flush’s story is also a viewpoint from which to paint a picture of Victorian London, and of a time in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s life. (Invalid writers seem to be coming at me from all angles these days.) As somewhat of an invalid myself I was relieved by Woolf’s sympathetic and realistic treatment of Browning’s incapacity. She describes Flush’s concern when he sees how exhausted his mistress is after receiving callers, though one caller in particular, her future husband, seems to vitalize rather than drain her. Her health improved dramatically after she defied her controlling father to elope with Mr. Browning to Italy (taking Flush, of course, and her maid Wilson, for whom Woolf also had a biographical fascination). Flush, Browning, and Wilson all blossom in the warmth and light of Florence. Browning has a child there, and Flush and Wilson, both aristocratic in their way, loosen their ideas and discover love. Perhaps E.M. Forster was right about Italy.