Flush: a biography, by Virginia Woolf

Chapter Two

The Back Bedroom

The summer of 1842 was, historians tell us, not much different from other summers, yet to Flush it was so different that he must have doubted if the world itself were the same. It was a summer spent in a bedroom; a summer spent with Miss Barrett. It was a summer spent in London, spent in the heart of civilisation. At first he saw nothing but the bedroom and its furniture, but that alone was surprising enough. To identify, distinguish and call by their right names all the different articles he saw there was confusing enough. And he had scarcely accustomed himself to the tables, to the busts, to the washing-stands — the smell of eau de cologne still lacerated his nostrils, when there came one of those rare days which are fine but not windy, warm but not baking, dry but not dusty, when an invalid can take the air. The day came when Miss Barrett could safely risk the huge adventure of going shopping with her sister.

The carriage was ordered; Miss Barrett rose from her sofa; veiled and muffled, she descended the stairs. Flush of course went with her. He leapt into the carriage by her side. Couched on her lap, the whole pomp of London at its most splendid burst on his astonished eyes. They drove along Oxford Street. He saw houses made almost entirely of glass. He saw windows laced across with glittering streamers; heaped with gleaming mounds of pink, purple, yellow, rose. The carriage stopped. He entered mysterious arcades filmed with clouds and webs of tinted gauze. A million airs from China, from Arabia, wafted their frail incense into the remotest fibres of his senses. Swiftly over the counters flashed yards of gleaming silk; more darkly, more slowly rolled the ponderous bombazine. Scissors snipped; coins sparkled. Paper was folded; string tied. What with nodding plumes, waving streamers, tossing horses, yellow liveries, passing faces, leaping, dancing up, down, Flush, satiated with the multiplicity of his sensations, slept, drowsed, dreamt and knew no more until he was lifted out of the carriage and the door of Wimpole Street shut on him again.

And next day, as the fine weather continued, Miss Barrett ventured upon an even more daring exploit — she had herself drawn up Wimpole Street in a bath-chair. Again Flush went with her. For the first time he heard his nails click upon the hard paving-stones of London. For the first time the whole battery of a London street on a hot summer’s day assaulted his nostrils. He smelt the swooning smells that lie in the gutters; the bitter smells that corrode iron railings; the fuming, heady smells that rise from basements — smells more complex, corrupt, violently contrasted and compounded than any he had smelt in the fields near Reading; smells that lay far beyond the range of the human nose; so that while the chair went on, he stopped, amazed; smelling, savouring, until a jerk at his collar dragged him on. And also, as he trotted up Wimpole Street behind Miss Barrett’s chair he was dazed by the passage of human bodies. Petticoats swished at his head; trousers brushed his flanks; sometimes a wheel whizzed an inch from his nose; the wind of destruction roared in his ears and fanned the feathers of his paws as a van passed. Then he plunged in terror. Mercifully the chain tugged at his collar; Miss Barrett held him tight, or he would have rushed to destruction.

At last, with every nerve throbbing and every sense singing, he reached Regent’s Park. And then when he saw once more, after years of absence it seemed, grass, flowers and trees, the old hunting cry of the fields hallooed in his ears and he dashed forward to run as he had run in the fields at home. But now a heavy weight jerked at his throat; he was thrown back on his haunches. Were there not trees and grass? he asked. Were these not the signals of freedom? Had he not always leapt forward directly Miss Mitford started on her walk? Why was he a prisoner here? He paused. Here, he observed, the flowers were massed far more thickly than at home; they stood, plant by plant, rigidly in narrow plots. The plots were intersected by hard black paths. Men in shiny top-hats marched ominously up and down the paths. At the sight of them he shuddered closer to the chair. He gladly accepted the protection of the chain. Thus before many of these walks were over a new conception had entered his brain. Setting one thing beside another, he had arrived at a conclusion. Where there are flower- beds there are asphalt paths; where there are flower-beds and asphalt paths, there are men in shiny top-hats; where there are flower-beds and asphalt paths and men in shiny top-hats, dogs must be led on chains. Without being able to decipher a word of the placard at the Gate, he had learnt his lesson — in Regent’s Park dogs must be led on chains.

And to this nucleus of knowledge, born from the strange experiences of the summer of 1842, soon adhered another: dogs are not equal, but different. At Three Mile Cross Flush had mixed impartially with tap-room dogs and the Squire’s greyhounds; he had known no difference between the tinker’s dog and himself. Indeed it is probable that the mother of his child, though by courtesy called Spaniel, was nothing but a mongrel, eared in one way, tailed in another. But the dogs of London, Flush soon discovered, are strictly divided into different classes. Some are chained dogs; some run wild. Some take their airings in carriages and drink from purple jars; others are unkempt and uncollared and pick up a living in the gutter. Dogs therefore, Flush began to suspect, differ; some are high, others low; and his suspicions were confirmed by snatches of talk held in passing with the dogs of Wimpole Street. “See that scallywag? A mere mongrel! . . . By gad, that’s a fine Spaniel. One of the best blood in Britain! . . . Pity his ears aren’t a shade more curly. . . . There’s a topknot for you!”

From such phrases, from the accent of praise or derision in which they were spoken, at the pillar-box or outside the public-house where the footmen were exchanging racing tips, Flush knew before the summer had passed that there is no equality among dogs: there are high dogs and low dogs. Which, then, was he? No sooner had Flush got home than he examined himself carefully in the looking- glass. Heaven be praised, he was a dog of birth and breeding! His head was smooth; his eyes were prominent but not gozzled; his feet were feathered; he was the equal of the best-bred cocker in Wimpole Street. He noted with approval the purple jar from which he drank — such are the privileges of rank; he bent his head quietly to have the chain fixed to his collar — such are its penalties. When about this time Miss Barrett observed him staring in the glass, she was mistaken. He was a philosopher, she thought, meditating the difference between appearance and reality. On the contrary, he was an aristocrat considering his points.

But the fine summer days were soon over; the autumn winds began to blow; and Miss Barrett settled down to a life of complete seclusion in her bedroom. Flush’s life was also changed. His outdoor education was supplemented by that of the bed-room, and this, to a dog of Flush’s temperament, was the most drastic that could have been invented. His only airings, and these were brief and perfunctory, were taken in the company of Wilson, Miss Barrett’s maid. For the rest of the day he kept his station on the sofa at Miss Barrett’s feet. All his natural instincts were thwarted and contradicted. When the autumn winds had blown last year in Berkshire he had run in wild scampering across the stubble; now at the sound of the ivy tapping on the pane Miss Barrett asked Wilson to see to the fastenings of the window. When the leaves of the scarlet runners and nasturtiums in the window-box yellowed and fell she drew her Indian shawl more closely round her. When the October rain lashed the window Wilson lit the fire and heaped up the coals. Autumn deepened into winter and the first fogs jaundiced the air. Wilson and Flush could scarcely grope their way to the pillar-box or to the chemist. When they came back, nothing could be seen in the room but the pale busts glimmering wanly on the tops of the wardrobes; the peasants and the castle had vanished on the blind; blank yellow filled the pane. Flush felt that he and Miss Barrett lived alone together in a cushioned and fire-lit cave. The traffic droned on perpetually outside with muffled reverberations; now and again a voice went calling hoarsely, “Old chairs and baskets to mend,” down the street: sometimes there was a jangle of organ music, coming nearer and louder; going further and fading away. But none of these sounds meant freedom, or action, or exercise. The wind and the rain, the wild days of autumn and the cold days of mid-winter, all alike meant nothing to Flush except warmth and stillness; the lighting of lamps, the drawing of curtains and the poking of the fire.

At first the strain was too great to be borne. He could not help dancing round the room on a windy autumn day when the partridges must be scattering over the stubble. He thought he heard guns on the breeze. He could not help running to the door with his hackles raised when a dog barked outside. And yet when Miss Barrett called him back, when she laid her hand on his collar, he could not deny that another feeling, urgent, contradictory, disagreeable — he did not know what to call it or why he obeyed it — restrained him. He lay still at her feet. To resign, to control, to suppress the most violent instincts of his nature — that was the prime lesson of the bedroom school, and it was one of such portentous difficulty that many scholars have learnt Greek with less — many battles have been won that cost their generals not half such pain. But then, Miss Barrett was the teacher. Between them, Flush felt more and more strongly, as the weeks wore on, was a bond, an uncomfortable yet thrilling tightness; so that if his pleasure was her pain, then his pleasure was pleasure no longer but three parts pain. The truth of this was proved every day. Somebody opened the door and whistled him to come. Why should he not go out? He longed for air and exercise; his limbs were cramped with lying on the sofa. He had never grown altogether used to the smell of eau de cologne. But no — though the door stood open, he would not leave Miss Barrett. He hesitated halfway to the door and then went back to the sofa. “Flushie,” wrote Miss Barrett, “is my friend — my companion — and loves me better than he loves the sunshine without.” She could not go out. She was chained to the sofa. “A bird in a cage would have as good a story,” she wrote, as she had. And Flush, to whom the whole world was free, chose to forfeit all the smells of Wimpole Street in order to lie by her side.

And yet sometimes the tie would almost break; there were vast gaps in their understanding. Sometimes they would lie and stare at each other in blank bewilderment. Why, Miss Barrett wondered, did Flush tremble suddenly, and whimper and start and listen? She could hear nothing; she could see nothing; there was nobody in the room with them. She could not guess that Folly, her sister’s little King Charles, had passed the door; or that Catiline, the Cuba bloodhound, had been given a mutton-bone by a footman in the basement. But Flush knew; he heard; he was ravaged by the alternate rages of lust and greed. Then with all her poet’s imagination Miss Barrett could not divine what Wilson’s wet umbrella meant to Flush; what memories it recalled, of forests and parrots and wild trumpeting elephants; nor did she know, when Mr. Kenyon stumbled over the bell-pull, that Flush heard dark men cursing in the mountains; the cry, “Span! Span!” rang in his ears, and it was in some muffled, ancestral rage that he bit him.

Flush was equally at a loss to account for Miss Barrett’s emotions. 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? “Ah, my dear Mr. Horne,” she was writing. “And then came the failure in my health . . . and then the enforced exile to Torquay . . . which gave a nightmare to my life for ever, and robbed it of more than I can speak of here; do not speak of that anywhere. Do not speak of that, dear Mr. Horne.” But there was no sound in the room, no smell to make Miss Barrett cry. Then again Miss Barrett, still agitating her stick, burst out laughing. She had drawn “a very neat and characteristic portrait of Flush, humorously made rather like myself,” and she had written under it that it “only fails of being an excellent substitute for mine through being more worthy than I can be counted.” What was there to laugh at in the black smudge that she held out for Flush to look at? He could smell nothing; he could hear nothing. There was nobody in the room with them. The fact was that they could not communicate with words, and it was a fact that led undoubtedly to much misunderstanding. Yet did it not lead also to a peculiar intimacy? “Writing,”— Miss Barrett once exclaimed after a morning’s toil, “writing, writing . . . ” After all, she may have thought, do words say everything? Can words say anything? Do not words destroy the symbol that lies beyond the reach of words? Once at least Miss Barrett seems to have found it so. She was lying, thinking; she had forgotten Flush altogether, and her thoughts were so sad that the tears fell upon the pillow. Then suddenly a hairy head was pressed against her; large bright eyes shone in hers; and she started. Was it Flush, or was it Pan? Was she no longer an invalid in Wimpole Street, but a Greek nymph in some dim grove in Arcady? And did the bearded god himself press his lips to hers? For a moment she was transformed; she was a nymph and Flush was Pan. The sun burnt and love blazed. But suppose Flush had been able to speak — would he not have said something sensible about the potato disease in Ireland?

So, too, Flush felt strange stirrings at work within him. When he saw Miss Barrett’s thin hands delicately lifting some silver box or pearl ornament from the ringed table, his own furry paws seemed to contract and he longed that they should fine themselves to ten separate fingers. When he heard her low voice syllabling innumerable sounds, he longed for the day when his own rough roar would issue like hers in the little simple sounds that had such mysterious meaning. And when he watched the same fingers for ever crossing a white page with a straight stick, he longed for the time when he too should blacken paper as she did.

And yet, had he been able to write as she did? — The question is superfluous happily, for truth compels us to say that in the year 1842-43 Miss Barrett was not a nymph but an invalid; Flush was not a poet but a red cocker spaniel; and Wimpole Street was not Arcady but Wimpole Street.

So the long hours went by in the back bedroom with nothing to mark them but the sound of steps passing on the stairs; and the distant sound of the front door shutting, and the sound of a broom tapping, and the sound of the postman knocking. In the room coals clicked; the lights and shadows shifted themselves over the brows of the five pale busts, over the bookcase and its red merino. But sometimes the step on the stair did not pass the door; it stopped outside. The handle was seen to spin round; the door actually opened; somebody came in. Then how strangely the furniture changed its look! What extraordinary eddies of sound and smell were at once set in circulation! How they washed round the legs of tables and impinged on the sharp edges of the wardrobe! Probably it was Wilson, with a tray of food or a glass of medicine; or it might be one of Miss Barrett’s two sisters — Arabel or Henrietta; or it might be one of Miss Barrett’s seven brothers — Charles, Samuel, George, Henry, Alfred, Septimus or Octavius. But once or twice a week Flush was aware that something more important was about to happen. The bed would be carefully disguised as a sofa. The armchair would be drawn up beside it; Miss Barrett herself would be wrapped becomingly in Indian shawls; the toilet things would be scrupulously hidden under the busts of Chaucer and Homer; Flush himself would be combed and brushed. At about two or three in the afternoon there was a peculiar, distinct and different tap at the door. Miss Barrett flushed, smiled and stretched out her hand. Then in would come — perhaps dear Miss Mitford, rosy and shiny and chattering, with a bunch of geraniums. Or it might be Mr. Kenyon, a stout, well-groomed elderly gentleman, radiating benevolence, provided with a book. Or it might be Mrs. Jameson, a lady who was the very opposite of Mr. Kenyon to look at — a lady with “a very light complexion — pale, lucid, eyes; thin colourless lips.. . a nose and chin projective without breadth.” Each had his or her own manner, smell, tone and accent. Miss Mitford burbled and chattered, was fly-away yet substantial; Mr. Kenyon was urbane and cultured and mumbled slightly because he had lost two front teeth; 2 Mrs. Jameson had lost none of her teeth, and moved as sharply and precisely as she spoke.

Lying couched at Miss Barrett’s feet, Flush let the voices ripple over him, hour by hour. On and on they went. Miss Barrett laughed, expostulated, exclaimed, sighed too, and laughed again. At last, greatly to Flush’s relief, little silences came — even in the flow of Miss Mitford’s conversation. Could it be seven already? She had been there since midday! She must really run to catch her train. Mr. Kenyon shut his book — he had been reading aloud — and stood with his back to the fire; Mrs. Jameson with a sharp, angular movement pressed each finger of her glove sharp down. And Flush was patted by this one and had his ear pulled by another. The routine of leave-taking was intolerably prolonged; but at last Mrs. Jameson, Mr. Kenyon, and even Miss Mitford had risen, had said good-bye, had remembered something, had lost something, had found something, had reached the door, had opened it, and were — Heaven be praised — gone at last.

Miss Barrett sank back very white, very tired on her pillows. Flush crept closer to her. Mercifully they were alone again. But the visitor had stayed so long that it was almost dinner-time. Smells began to rise from the basement. Wilson was at the door with Miss Barrett’s dinner on a tray. It was set down on the table beside her and the covers lifted. But what with the dressing and the talking, what with the heat of the room and the agitation of the farewells, Miss Barrett was too tired to eat. She gave a little sigh when she saw the plump mutton chop, or the wing of partridge or chicken that had been sent up for her dinner. So long as Wilson was in the room she fiddled about with her knife and fork. But directly the door was shut and they were alone, she made a sign. She held up her fork. A whole chicken’s wing was impaled upon it. Flush advanced. Miss Barrett nodded. Very gently, very cleverly, without spilling a crumb, Flush removed the wing; swallowed it down and left no trace behind. Half a rice pudding clotted with thick cream went the same way. Nothing could have been neater, more effective than Flush’s co-operation. He was lying couched as usual at Miss Barrett’s feet, apparently asleep, Miss Barrett was lying rested and restored, apparently having made an excellent dinner, when once more a step that was heavier, more deliberate and firmer than any other, stopped on the stair; solemnly a knock sounded that was no tap of enquiry but a demand for admittance; the door opened and in came the blackest, the most formidable of elderly men — Mr. Barrett himself. His eye at once sought the tray. Had the meal been eaten? Had his commands been obeyed? Yes, the plates were empty. Signifying his approval of his daughter’s obedience, Mr. Barrett lowered himself heavily into the chair by her side. As that dark body approached him, shivers of terror and horror ran down Flush’s spine. So a savage couched in flowers shudders when the thunder growls and he hears the voice of God. Then Wilson whistled; and Flush, slinking guiltily, as if Mr. Barrett could read his thoughts and those thoughts were evil, crept out of the room and rushed downstairs. A force had entered the bedroom which he dreaded; a force that he was powerless to withstand. Once he burst in unexpectedly. Mr. Barrett was on his knees praying by his daughter’s side.

2 “Mr. Kenyon mumbled slightly because he had lost two front teeth.” There are elements of exaggeration and conjecture here. Miss Mitford is the authority. She is reported to have said in conversation with Mr. Horne, “Our dear friend, you are aware, never sees anybody but the members of her own family, and one or two others. She has a high opinion of the skill in reading as well as the fine taste, of Mr. —— and she gets him to read her new poems aloud to her. . . . So Mr. —— stands upon the hearth-rug, and uplifts the Ms., and his voice, while our dear friend lies folded up in Indian shawls upon her sofa, with her long black tresses streaming over her bent-down head, all attention. Now, dear Mr. —— has lost a front tooth — not quite a front one, but a side front one — and this, you see, causes a defective utterance . . . an amiable indistinctness, a vague softening of syllables into each other, so that silence and ilence would really sound very like one another. . . . ” There can be little doubt that Mr. —— was Mr. Kenyon; the blank was necessitated by the peculiar delicacy of the Victorians with regard to teeth. But more important questions affecting English literature are involved. Miss Barrett has long been accused of a defective ear. Miss Mitford maintains that Mr. Kenyon should rather be accused of defective teeth. On the other hand, Miss Barrett herself maintained that her rhymes had nothing to do with his lack of teeth or with her lack of ear. “A great deal of attention,” she wrote, “— far more than it would have taken to rhyme with complete accuracy — have I given to the subject of rhymes and have determined in cold blood to hazard some experiments.” Hence she rhymed “angels” with “candles,” “heaven” with “unbelieving,” and “islands” with “silence”— in cold blood. It is of course for the professors to decide; but anybody who has studied Mrs. Browning’s character and her actions will be inclined to take the view that she was a wilful breaker of rules whether of art or of love, and so to convict her of some complicity in the development of modern poetry.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01