Sunday, 21 September 2008

Bibliotherapy: what to read when you're in need of creature comfort


Today's bibliotherapy prescription is Virginia Woolf's 'Flush', her biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog. Yes, I know, the pictures posted here are of my dog, Molly -- who has a far less exalted pedigree than Flush -- but I hope you don't mind, because she is a wonderfully comforting companion. The picture above was taken on the beach at Lantic Bay, after walking there from Fowey. It's the steepest descent -- and ascent -- to any Cornish beach that I know of, hence the fact that we are both exhausted. The other picture is taken on the footpath from Llansallos to Polruan: a spectacular cliff-top walk, which passes the little coastguard's hut where Daphne du Maurier had her romantic wartime assignations...
Anyway, back to Virginia Woolf... you don't have to be a dog-lover to love this book. It's about sickness and health, confinement and escape, freedom and liberty and wonderment. You can read the piece online at the Telegraph, or below. If you do read it online, please feel free to post your own suggestions for future columns on the Telegraph website. Or here, if you prefer....

If having a pet is good therapy, then reading about a dog can be almost as consoling. Best of all is Virginia Woolf’s ‘Flush’, a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel that traces his story from puppyhood in the English countryside to his death in Italy at the age of 14.

Written in 1932, as light relief to recover from the strain of finishing ‘The Waves’, ‘Flush’ was as therapeutic for its author as the eponymous hero had been to his owner. The spaniel offered companionship to Elizabeth Barrett during her cloistered years as an invalid in an airless back bedroom of her father’s London house; though Woolf (who had suffered the confinements of mental illness) makes it clear in her dog’s life that this was no life at all; not for Flush, or his mistress. “He had refused the air and sun for her sake… he was a dog in the full prime of life – and still Miss Barrett lay on her sofa in Wimpole Street and still Flush lay on the sofa at her feet.” The poet’s existence was that of ‘a bird in a cage’; and her loyal spaniel was caged alongside her, apart from outings to Regent’s Park, where ‘dogs must be led on chains’.

But both dog and woman were set free from the tyrannies of Wimpole Street by the intervention of Robert Browning. Miss Barrett eloped with him to Italy in 1846, taking her dog with her, and there they discovered the pleasures of life. Mrs Browning was restored to health (“instead of sipping a thimbleful of port and complaining of the headache, she tossed off a tumbler of Chianti… and broke another orange from the branch”); she became a mother, and Flush fathered puppies of his own.

By fully inhabiting Flush, the author seems more than a Woolf in dog’s clothing; or as her nephew Quentin Bell observed, “‘Flush’ is not so much a book by a dog lover as a book by someone who would love to be a dog.” Too often ignored by academics or dismissed by critics as whimsy, ‘Flush’ is a reminder of what we might learn from dogs; not least of which is playfulness.

7 comments:

Bront√ęBlog Adm. said...

I'm loving this column more and more. Flush is one charming book indeed. And both Virginia Woolf and WElizabeth Barrett Browning led fascinating lives.

Fantastic pictures - such a beautiful place!

Cristina.

Amy said...

I'll have to read that one.

A contemporary dog book that's really wonderful, beautifully written, is Mark Doty's Dog Years. Great, great dog book.

Juxtabook said...

What a great recommendation. Wasn't Flush kidnapped for a ransom at one point and EB nearly broke off with Browning because he recommended not giving in and letting Flush take his chances? Does VW cover that in her book?

oxford-reader said...

I think dogs are one of the best forms of solace there is. We used to have a chocolate Lab, and you could tell all your troubles to him and never be judged.

I do love these columns - I'm getting more and more ideas for reading! What would you suggest when one is feeling a bit under the weather or stressed? Those would be good columns for the coming winter months!

Gondal-girl said...

One of my favourites too Justine, love EBB

Gondal-girl said...

One of my favourites too Justine, love EBB

Justine Picardie said...

Thanks for all your comments and suggestions. I must check out 'Dog Years'. And yes, Juxtabook is right -- Flush was kidnapped (once in Woolf's account, three times in reality) by East End ruffians. VW goes into some detail about EB ignoring both her father and Browning's advice to not give in to the kidnappers. I could have written a column ten times longer -- sadly, no more space was available in the Sunday Telegraph. But definitely a subject worth returning to...