by Sam Schuman | Summer Reading | Web Exclusive
In isolation, pets, like books, can be a saving grace—just ask Virginia Woolf.
Coronavirus hasn’t been easy on anybody, although its effects are, of course, asymmetrically felt. But Max doesn’t seem to be bothered by the pandemic one bit. If anything, he’s got it better now than ever: the whole family (stuck) at home, occasionally desperate for a break from one another and always willing to confide in him, the only member of the household who will never judge or give an undesirable reply. This is because Max can’t speak—he’s our nine-year-old silver tiger tabby cat. Since my brother and I left home for college, he’s also become my parents’ de facto third child.
In addition to his obvious verbal limitation, Max, with his namesake silver fur, inquisitive seafoam eyes, and ears like triangular radar dishes, has a physical one, too: he’s only got three legs, the result of an accident when he was just months old, before we adopted him. (I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to make “we got hungry” the go-to family retort when visitors ask about him.) He’s not bothered by his missing hind leg, as far as I can tell. To the contrary, he enjoys every creature comfort of the suburban housecat life: hopping onto beds, chairs, couches, tables, and laptops to nap as desired, mewling incessantly should he find something disagreeable with his Fancy Feast dinner, stalking small game in our yard.
My relationship with Max hasn’t changed at all since the pandemic. It’s the same routine, day in and day out, of daring escapes from our front door and bait-and-switch playfulness that ends, more often than not, with claws out and skin broken. While I watch the news with my parents, Max studiously cleans himself next to us, totally unaware of rising Covid death tolls, horrifying police violence, and increasingly common climate disasters. He’s something of an anchor in the house, a living thing who demands care and attention, and provides some of his own in return, without any concern for the mounting human exigencies that 2020 seems hell-bent on delivering.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a prolific Victorian poet who rivaled Tennyson for the title of U.K. Poet Laureate after Wordsworth’s death—far from a trivial figure in English letters. But, I should admit here, I had never heard of her until last month, when, finally having some downtime, I read Virginia Woolf’s Flush: A Biography. Billed by my slim, black Penguin Classics edition as a “playful, witty biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet spaniel,” the 100-pages-and-change novella is a fascinating cross-genre work. Woolf constructs an imaginative piece of nominal nonfiction narrated by Barrett Browning’s eponymous dog, Flush, out of the scant documentary evidence of his life found in the 19th-century writer’s corpus. Her poems and letters serve as literary clues, points of creative departure like, “A head as hairy as Faunus, thrust its way / Right sudden against my face,—two golden-clear / Great eyes astonished mine,—a dropping ear / Did flap me on either cheek to dry the spray!” Flush was Woolf’s best-selling book to date when it was published in 1933, but it’s among her most neglected today.
I was initially more interested in Woolf’s presentation of the dog than in her treatment of its owner. The back cover seemed to encourage such a focus, proclaiming that the text “asks what it is to be a dog, and a human.” My myopic entry point led me far astray of most critical interpretations of Flush, which take the work as a feminist allegory, a modernist critique of London, or an exploration of class conflict. Instead, what gripped me, reading Flush in this moment, were the descriptions of the spaniel’s life with Ms. Barrett, a sickly woman who spends her days almost entirely confined to a posh room in her family home on London’s Wimpole Street, simulating a (highly privileged) sort of quarantine. While Ms. Barrett spends her days recumbent or hunched over writing, Flush sleeps at her feet. It’s a study in forced, if not reluctant, intimacy.
Flush is a priceless gift to Ms. Barrett from her poor, maternalistic friend and fellow writer, Mary Russell Mitford. Raised in a working-class cottage since birth, young Flush is accustomed to romping Pan-like through wild English fields, not to Ms. Barrett’s dimly lit, aristocratic chamber, with its large looking glass, multiple marble busts, and elaborate furniture. His initial response to the room, Woolf postulates, is that of “a scholar who has descended step by step into a mausoleum and there finds himself in a crypt, crusted with fungus, slimy with mould, exuding sour smells of decay and antiquity.” But Flush is not a scholar; he is a spaniel, and a well-bred and sensitive one at that. He quickly develops a curious relationship with Ms. Barrett. Within moments of their meeting, Woolf tells us, “There was a likeness between them. As they gazed at each other each felt: Here am I—and then each felt: But how different!”
Trapped in her room, where she compares herself to a caged bird, Ms. Barrett writes frequently. “There she would lie hour after hour passing her hand over a white page with a black stick; and her eyes would suddenly fill with tears; but why?” Flush wonders. This misunderstanding, far from creating a gulf between the two recluses, leads to “a bond, an uncomfortable yet thrilling tightness.” Without words to get in the way, they form a “peculiar intimacy” immune to any sort of misinterpretation, doublespeak, or half-truth. They can do nothing except understand each other perfectly.
As 1842 slips into 1843, then 1844, then 1845, writing and Flush, Flush and writing, remain Ms. Barrett’s personal world. There’s a certain unity achieved. A pet, after all, can’t talk back any more than a piece of stationary can. Can’t edit, can’t rebut, can’t compliment, can’t question, can’t crack a joke. But pets aren’t stationary. They can console and comfort and play and offer a physical warmth that pen and paper will never match. In that quiet, cloistered room on Wimpole Street, desk and dog become two sides of the same coin, fulfilling, respectively, all the needs that words can, and all those that they cannot.
Ms. Barrett’s poetry eventually attracts the attention of Robert Browning, another London poet, and the two strike up a written correspondence. Browning soon begins to call on Ms. Barrett in person, and her relationship with Flush is forever changed as she slowly comes out of her shell, supplementing their bond with a new kind of thrilling affection. But her dedication to Flush, and his to her, is apparent throughout the human courtship. When local petty criminals kidnap Flush, Ms. Barrett disobeys Mr. Browning and her family and takes an unprecedented risk by traveling to the thieves’ dilapidated house in rough-and-tumble Shoreditch to personally demand the dog’s safe return. Once Flush has at last arrived back at Wimpole Street, Woolf relates, he “read her feelings more clearly than ever before. They had been parted; now they were together. Indeed they had never been so much akin.”
Ms. Barrett and Mr. Browning elope and move to Italy, where “just as Mrs. Browning was exploring her new freedom and delighting in the discoveries she made, so Flush too was making his discoveries and exploring his freedom.” Both woman and canine find new sources of excitement and fulfillment, and their relationship becomes “far less emotional now than in the old days; she no longer needed his red fur and his bright eyes to give her what her own experience lacked.” Flush, for his part, is now his own master. He “goes out by himself, and stays hours together,” Woolf quotes from Mrs. Browning’s letters. Yet, through all this, we are assured, “the tie which bound them together was undeniably still binding.” When it comes time for Flush to die, he is reposed in a Florentine marketplace. Seized by some unspeakable, but perhaps entirely knowable, urge, he wakes with a start, makes a beeline for Mrs. Browning’s home, and dies in her arms. Woolf’s description of the mortal moment is matter-of-fact: “He had been alive; he was now dead.” But this near-monosyllabic narration isn’t detachment; it’s earned brevity in a relationship that was never verbal in the first place.
Such getaways, where separation may make the heart grow fonder, are out of the question at present. Like Ms. Barrett, we’re pretty much stuck in our rooms, hemmed in by distractions digital and print, and, if we’re lucky, a furry companion or two. Neither books nor pets care much for our personal affairs. Their indifference lends them stability. The world turns, but text on the page doesn’t rearrange itself. Crises unfold, but Max still hops around on his three legs, never seeming any the worse for wear as he begs each morning to be let outside to sunbathe on our front porch and terrorize any birds foolish enough to venture into our front yard. Yet neither relationship is entirely one-sided. Books yield new meanings as we read and reread them, finding ourselves “seen” in entirely new ways. And pets, living things that they are, often seem to know when we need them the most.
This is, perhaps, their primary dissimilarity: books, for all of their interactivity, are static. The best ones almost always outlive their authors. The average housecat, on the other hand, lives no more than two decades. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry is still read today. Flush, Woolf reports in an endnote, has been buried in the vaults of a 15th-century patrician house in Italy for over a century. Ephemerality makes all the difference. My copy of Flush, although it is mine, is ultimately a monolith. But Max and I, we’re in this together.
Sam Schuman is a fourth-year College student and Editor-in-Chief of Wilder Voice.