Books and movies about dogs are very popular these days, but they have a long history. Virginia Woolf’s Flush, the biography of a cocker spaniel, dates back to 1933 and is a must-read for fans of both the canine and modernist genres. In this essay, Barbara K. Seeber reflects on why she loves Woolf’s book and why it is relevant to the animal rights movement.
The “Flush” of Love
by Barbara K. Seeber
I first read Virginia Woolf’s Flush, published in 1933, on a friend’s recommendation: “You love Darcy so much; you’re going to love it.” Darcy was my cat, and I was, therefore, a bit surprised, as I knew that Woolf’s novel is not about a cat. Flush is about a dog – to be precise, it is about the red cocker spaniel who shares his life with Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning in England and then Italy. But my friend was on to something. One of the many things I love about Flush is that distinctions – whether between humans and animals, or dogs and cats – fade away. Flush at times “prefer[s] the silence of the cat to the robustness of the dog; and human sympathy to either.” Darcy, too, seemed part cat, part dog, and part human.
Flush celebrates interspecies friendship regardless of which species are involved. The book reminds me of the connections that are possible, even though our world — like the 19th-century one which Elizabeth and Flush inhabit — is set up on rigid hierarchies between men and women; rich and poor; humans and animals; and animals who are loved and the many, many more who are not. Consider, for example, “the 45 million turkeys that find their way to our Thanksgiving table,” described so memorably by Jonathan Safran Foer in Eating Animals as “unhealthy, unhappy, and – this is a radical understatement – unloved.” In writing the biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, “making him a Life,” as she put it, Woolf takes the genre of biography (a life story worth telling) to open up the broader question of whose life matters.
While for many years the novel was devalued as lightweight in comparison to Woolf’s modernist classics such as Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, it has been given a new lease on life due to its exploration of issues central to the animal rights movement. Flush, the little dog, embodies the great hope that love can offer across the species divide. When Elizabeth and Flush first meet, “they gazed at each other” and “each felt: Here am I – and then each felt: But how different! … Then with one bound Flush sprang on to the sofa and laid himself where he was to lie for ever after – on the rug at Miss Barrett’s feet.”
However, in spite of the fairy tale language of “ever after,” Woolf doesn’t idealize the pet relationship. Flush isn’t always at Miss Barrett’s feet. Sometimes, he is “by her side,” and sometimes he is ignored (most painfully, when Elizabeth falls in love with Robert Browning). Elizabeth lives in a world of sight, Flush in a world of scent, and this leads to “vast gaps in their understanding. Sometimes they would lie and stare at each other in blank bewilderment.” They are “closely united” and “immensely divided.” The argument that animals deserve ethical treatment because they are like us has made many important changes for the better, and it continues to be vital to animal rights politics. Woolf’s novel reminds me to also leave room for otherness, for what I don’t understand, for what isn’t like me. Some theorists posit that if the claim for animal rights is based solely on sameness, it will not serve all animals equally; new lines will be drawn. Woolf’s novel seems to anticipate this challenge and offers a complex negotiation of similarities and differences.
Woolf also reminds us that the bond between Flush and Elizabeth connects as well as restricts, and the burden of relationship is not shared equally; it’s Flush who gives up “the air and the sun” to live with Elizabeth. Woolf’s novel pays homage to the friendships that are possible between humans and non-humans, but it also reminds us of the power structures implicated in the practice of pet-keeping. This is a truth we sometimes wish to forget in our interspecies relationships.
Elizabeth does recognize the sacrifices Flush has made for her. When he is kidnapped and suffers imprisonment, she knows that she has a duty to save him (in the Victorian era, pets sometimes were stolen and then held ransom by those who did not enjoy the comforts of middle-class life). But doing so is no easy matter: “It was almost as difficult for her to go to Flush as for Flush to come to her.” Woolf makes very clear that the social hierarchies of species and gender are interconnected. Elizabeth, as a Victorian woman, is also on a leash of sorts. Her family, in particular her domineering father and brother, bully her. And she is faced with even more difficult pressure from her husband-to-be, Robert Browning, who urges her not to give in to blackmailers.
But Elizabeth stays steadfast in her love for Flush. Miraculously, this does not mean that she has to give up her love for Robert; Elizabeth goes against his advice, but this choice doesn’t tear them apart. As one of my students said when discussing this passage in class, “This is so powerful. We’re always taught that we have to come to agreement.” The novel offers much wisdom about love: not only the love between individuals (human and non-human) but also the love that animates activism. Elizabeth makes the ethical decision to save Flush by following her heart. This is one way of coming to the philosophies and politics of animal rights. As we all know, it is their love for Esther the Wonder Pig that turned Steve and Derek into vegans, and then led them to devote their lives to saving animals.
Ultimately, to me, the novel suggests that love and ethics require a leap of faith across what divides us. It’s Flush who makes the first courageous move, jumping onto the sofa. His bravery is matched by Elizabeth, also a “willful breaker of rules whether of art or of love.” Loving Flush gave Elizabeth the courage to defy Victorian norms: “How easy it would have been to yield.” Changing the world for animals is not easy, but love carries us through.
Barbara K. Seeber is Professor of English at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. Her primary areas of writing and teaching are Jane Austen, 18th– and early 19th-century fiction, and Animal Studies. She is the author of Jane Austen and Animals (Ashgate, 2013) and General Consent in Jane Austen: A Study of Dialogism (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000). She shares her home with two friends: Frida (a majestic black cat with a big heart) and Georgie (a sweet and plucky Shih Tzu). Both are rescue animals, of course!