“This you’ll call sentimental — perhaps — but then a dog somehow represents — no, I can’t think of the word — the private side of life — the play side.”
— Virginia Woolf
How I love my Woolf, always hedging, always qualifying, but almost always accurate. She certainly loved her spaniels, and she wrote a really perceptive and charming novella from the perspective of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel Flush. Highly recommended to literary dog lovers.
Happy Thanksgiving weekend, everyone! I’ll be out of commission for the rest of the week and am looking forward to spending some quality time with Dublin & Co. and Aoive. Hope your weekend is peaceful and bright. See you Monday.
This book sounded like the perfect diversion from training and behavior books. I was an English major and wrote a honors thesis on Virginia Woolf and had previously loved Woolf’s “biography” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, Flush. I love reading about women writers–and women writers plus their dogs? What’s not to love? In Shaggy Muses, psychologist Maureen Adams looks at five great women authors and explores their complex and beautiful relationships with their dogs.
Adams discusses the relationships between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Flush, the much-beloved cocker spaniel; Emily Bronte and her mastiff, Keeper; Emily Dickinson and her sweet Newfoundland, Carlo; Edith Wharton and her various toy breeds, mostly Pekingese; and Virginia Woolf and her various dogs, especially the spaniel Pinka, featured on the cover of this book. (Pinka served as her role model for the character of Flush when Woolf was writing Flush’s biography.)
I found that the common theme of this book was this: Dogs helped these women through grief and loneliness. The life of a woman artist is rarely cheery, especially if you had the misfortune of being a woman artist in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The companionship of a dog, according to Adams, helped these women come out of their shells.
My only complaint with the book is through no fault of Adams’. Rather, it is difficult to know much about some of these women, especially the famously mysterious Emily Bronte, without speculation. Occasionally, I felt like Adams overstepped her bounds as an objective researcher, but she is a psychologist, so I suppose she can’t be blamed.
There are many beautiful and touching comments from these writers about their dogs, many of which I plan to feature here in the weeks to come. So, keep your eyes peeled. Overall, I’d recommend this book as a light and interesting overview of the ways in which dogs have comforted and cheered some of the world’s most gifted artists.
Most people who know me know two things about me: that I am obsessed with dogs and Virginia Woolf.
You can imagine my delight when, many years ago, I learned that Woolf had written a biography of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s beloved cocker spaniel, Flush. My two favorite things, together at last! I wrote my honors thesis on Woolf and her portrayal of mothers as artists in her novels, but never got around to reading Flush as part of my research.
At long last, this summer, I finally picked it up. For a deep Woolf devotee as myself, I could not be disappointed. And I wasn’t. Flush is a delightful, humorous memoir of the great love between a woman and her spaniel. Woolf naturally takes a good deal of creative license with this “biography”–since Flush and Barrett Browning lived many decades before her time–but taking creative license is what Woolf does best.
Flush is funny and charming, just like the loyal spaniel himself. Rumor has it that Woolf developed much of the portrait of Flush based on her own English cocker spaniel, Pinka.
I think what I was most surprised and delighted by was how well Woolf seemed to understand dogs. Reportedly, she was not as much of a dog person as her husband, Leonard, was, but she was clearly attentive to them. Her approximation of a dog’s perspective seems to be quite accurate, judging from what we now know about a dog’s power of scent compared to our own.
Listen to this passage from the novel, in which Flush gets carried away by an overpowering and alluring scent:
But suddenly down the wind came tearing a smell sharper, stronger, more lacerating than any–a smell that ripped across his brain stirring a thousand instincts, releasing a million memories–the smell of hare, the smell of fox. Off he flashed like a fish drawn in a rush through water further and further. He forgot his mistress; he forgot all humankind. He heard dark men cry ‘Span! Span!’ He heard whips crack. He raced; he rushed. At last he stopped bewildered; the incantation faded; very slowly, wagging his tail sheepishly, he trotted back across the fields to where Miss Mitford stood shouting ‘Flush! Flush! Flush!’ and waving her umbrella.
“He forgot all humankind.” How often I have seen a dog do the same thing! The beauty of Flush, besides uniting my two great loves, was to remind me to think more like a dog. Woolf certainly seemed to be able to–and she channels this ability into a delightful fictional memoir of one very loved spaniel.
“The greatest poets in the world have smelt nothing but roses on the one hand, and dung on the other. The infinite gradations that lie between are unrecorded. Yet it was in the world of smell that Flush mostly lived. Love was chiefly smell; form and colour were smell; music and architecture, law, politics, and science were smell. To him religion itself was smell. To describe his simplest experience with the daily chop or biscuit is beyond our power.”