Flush: a biography, by Virginia Woolf

Chapter Five


Hours, days, weeks, it seemed of darkness and rattling; of sudden lights; and then long tunnels of gloom; of being flung this way and that; of being hastily lifted into the light and seeing Miss Barrett’s face close, and thin trees and lines and rails and high light-specked houses — for it was the barbarous custom of railways in those days to make dogs travel in boxes — followed. Yet Flush was not afraid; they were escaping; they were leaving tyrants and dog-stealers behind them. Rattle, grind; grind, rattle as much as you like, he murmured, as the train flung him this way and that; only let us leave Wimpole Street and Whitechapel behind us. At last the light broadened; the rattling stopped. He heard birds singing and the sigh of trees in the wind. Or was it the rush of water? Opening his eyes at last, shaking his coat at last, he saw — the most astonishing sight conceivable. There was Miss Barrett on a rock in the midst of rushing waters. Trees bent over her; the river raced round her. She must be in peril. With one bound Flush splashed through the stream and reached her. “ . . . he is baptized in Petrarch’s name,” said Miss Barrett as he clambered up on to the rock by her side. For they were at Vaucluse; she had perched herself upon a stone in the middle of Petrarch’s fountain.

Then there was more rattling and more grinding; and then again he was stood down on a stable floor; the darkness opened; light poured over him; he found himself alive, awake, bewildered, standing on reddish tiles in a vast bare room flooded with sunshine. He ran hither and thither smelling and touching. There was no carpet and no fireplace. There were no sofas, no armchairs, no bookcases, no busts. Pungent and unfamiliar smells tickled his nostrils and made him sneeze. The light, infinitely sharp and clear, dazzled his eyes. He had never been in a room — if this were indeed a room — that was so hard, so bright, so big, so empty. Miss Barrett looked smaller than ever sitting on a chair by a table in the midst. Then Wilson took him out of doors. He found himself almost blinded, first by the sun, then by the shadow. One-half of the street was burning hot; the other bitterly cold. Women went by wrapped in furs, yet they carried parasols to shade their heads. And the street was dry as bone. Though it was now the middle of November there was neither mud nor puddle to wet his paws or clot their feathers. There were no areas and no railings. There was none of that heady confusion of smells that made a walk down Wimpole Street or Oxford Street so distracting. On the other hand, the strange new smells that came from sharp stone corners, from dry yellow walls, were extraordinarily pungent and queer. Then from behind a black swinging curtain came an astonishing sweet smell, wafted in clouds; he stopped, his paws raised, to savour it; he made to follow it inside; he pushed in beneath the curtain. He had one glimpse of a booming light-sprinkled hall, very high and hollow; and then Wilson with a cry of horror, jerked him smartly back. They went on down the street again. The noise of the street was deafening. Everybody seemed to be shouting shrilly at the same moment. Instead of the solid and soporific hum of London there was a rattling and a crying, a jingling and a shouting, a cracking of whips and a jangling of bells. Flush leapt and jumped this way and that, and so did Wilson. They were forced on and off the pavement twenty times, to avoid a cart, a bullock, a troop of soldiers, a drove of goats. He felt younger, spryer than he had done these many years. Dazzled, yet exhilarated, he sank on the reddish tiles and slept more soundly than he had ever slept in the back bedroom at Wimpole Street upon pillows.

But soon Flush became aware of the more profound differences that distinguish Pisa — it was in Pisa that they were now settled — from London. The dogs were different. In London he could scarcely trot round to the pillar-box without meeting some pug dog, retriever, bulldog, mastiff, collie, Newfoundland, St. Bernard, fox terrier or one of the seven famous families of the Spaniel tribe. To each he gave a different name, and to each a different rank. But here in Pisa, though dogs abounded, there were no ranks; all — could it be possible? — were mongrels. As far as he could see, they were dogs merely — grey dogs, yellow dogs, brindled dogs, spotted dogs; but it was impossible to detect a single spaniel, collie, retriever or mastiff among them. Had the Kennel Club, then, no jurisdiction in Italy? Was the Spaniel Club unknown? Was there no law which decreed death to the topknot, which cherished the curled ear, protected the feathered foot, and insisted absolutely that the brow must be domed but not pointed? Apparently not. Flush felt himself like a prince in exile. He was the sole aristocrat among a crowd of canaille. He was the only pure-bred cocker spaniel in the whole of Pisa.

For many years now Flush had been taught to consider himself an aristocrat. The law of the purple jar and of the chain had sunk deep into his soul. It is scarcely surprising that he was thrown off his balance. A Howard or a Cavendish set down among a swarm of natives in mud huts can hardly be blamed if now and again he remembers Chatsworth and muses regretfully over red carpets and galleries daubed with coronets as the sunset blazes down through painted windows. There was an element, it must be admitted, of the snob in Flush; Miss Mitford had detected it years ago; and the sentiment, subdued in London among equals and superiors, returned to him now that he felt himself unique. He became overbearing and impudent. “Flush has grown an absolute monarch and barks one distracted when he wants a door opened,” Mrs. Browning wrote. “Robert,” she continued, “declares that the said Flush considers him, my husband, to be created for the especial purpose of doing him service, and really it looks rather like it.”

“Robert,” “my husband”— if Flush had changed, so had Miss Barrett. It was not merely that she called herself Mrs. Browning now; that she flashed the gold ring on her hand in the sun; she was changed, as much as Flush was changed. Flush heard her say, “Robert,” “my husband,” fifty times a day, and always with a ring of pride that made his hackles rise and his heart jump. But it was not her language only that had changed. She was a different person altogether. Now, for instance, instead of sipping a thimbleful of port and complaining of the headache, she tossed off a tumbler of Chianti and slept the sounder. There was a flowering branch of oranges on the dinner-table instead of one denuded, sour, yellow fruit. Then instead of driving in a barouche landau to Regent’s Park she pulled on her thick boots and scrambled over rocks. Instead of sitting in a carriage and rumbling along Oxford Street, they rattled off in a ramshackle fly to the borders of a lake and looked at mountains; and when she was tired she did not hail another cab; she sat on a stone and watched the lizards. She delighted in the sun; she delighted in the cold. She threw pine logs from the Duke’s forest on to the fire if it froze. They sat together in the crackling blaze and snuffed up the sharp, aromatic scent. She was never tired of praising Italy at the expense of England. “ . . . our poor English,” she exclaimed, “want educating into gladness. They want refining not in the fire but in the sunshine.” Here in Italy were freedom and life and the joy that the sun breeds. One never saw men fighting, or heard them swearing; one never saw the Italians drunk; —“the faces of those men” in Shoreditch came again before her eyes. She was always comparing Pisa with London and saying how much she preferred Pisa. In the streets of Pisa pretty women could walk alone; great ladies first emptied their own slops and then went to Court “in a blaze of undeniable glory.” Pisa with all its bells, its mongrels, its camels, its pine woods, was infinitely preferable to Wimpole Street and its mahogany doors and its shoulders of mutton. So Mrs. Browning every day, as she tossed off her Chianti and broke another orange from the branch, praised Italy and lamented poor, dull, damp, sunless, joyless, expensive, conventional England.

Wilson, it is true, for a time maintained her British balance. The memory of butlers and basements, of front doors and curtains, was not obliterated from her mind without an effort. She still had the conscience to walk out of a picture gallery “struck back by the indecency of the Venus.” And later, when she was allowed, by the kindness of a friend, to peep through a door at the glories of the Grand Ducal Court, she still loyally upheld the superior glory of St. James’s. “It . . . was all very shabby,” she reported, “in comparison with our English Court.” But even as she gazed, the superb figure of one of the Grand Duke’s bodyguard caught her eye. Her fancy was fired; her judgment reeled; her standards toppled. Lily Wilson fell passionately in love with Signor Righi, the guardsman. 6

And 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. Before they left Pisa — in the spring of 1847 they moved on to Florence — Flush had faced the curious and at first upsetting truth that the laws of the Kennel Club are not universal. He had brought himself to face the fact that light topknots are not necessarily fatal. He had revised his code accordingly. He had acted, at first with some hesitation, upon his new conception of canine society. He was becoming daily more and more democratic. Even in Pisa, Mrs. Browning noticed, “ . . . he goes out every day and speaks Italian to the little dogs.” Now in Florence the last threads of his old fetters fell from him. The moment of liberation came one day in the Cascine. As he raced over the grass “like emeralds” with “the pheasants all alive and flying,” Flush suddenly bethought him of Regent’s Park and its proclamation: Dogs must be led on chains. Where was “must” now? Where were chains now? Where were park-keepers and truncheons? Gone, with the dog-stealers and Kennel Clubs and Spaniel Clubs of a corrupt aristocracy! Gone with four-wheelers and hansom cabs! with Whitechapel and Shoreditch! He ran, he raced; his coat flashed; his eyes blazed. He was the friend of all the world now. All dogs were his brothers. He had no need of a chain in this new world; he had no need of protection. If Mr. Browning was late in going for his walk — he and Flush were the best of friends now — Flush boldly summoned him. He “stands up before him and barks in the most imperious manner possible,” Mrs. Browning observed with some irritation — for her relations with Flush were 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; she had found Pan for herself among the vineyards and the olive trees; he was there too beside the pine fire of an evening. So if Mr. Browning loitered, Flush stood up and barked; but if Mr. Browning preferred to stay at home and write, it did not matter. Flush was independent now. The wistarias and the laburnum were flowering over walls; the Judas trees were burning bright in the gardens; the wild tulips were sprinkled in the fields. Why should he wait? Off he ran by himself. He was his own master now. “ . . . he goes out by himself, and stays hours together,” Mrs. Browning wrote; “ . . . knows every street in Florence — will have his own way in everything. I am never frightened at his absence,” she added, remembering with a smile those hours of agony in Wimpole Street and the gang waiting to snatch him up under the horses’ feet if she forgot his chain in Vere Street. Fear was unknown in Florence; there were no dog-stealers here and, she may have sighed, there were no fathers.

But, to speak candidly, it was not to stare at pictures, to penetrate into dark churches and look up at dim frescoes, that Flush scampered off when the door of Casa Guidi was left open. It was to enjoy something, it was in search of something denied him all these years. Once the hunting horn of Venus had blown its wild music over the Berkshire fields; he had loved Mr. Partridge’s dog; she had borne him a child. Now he heard the same voice pealing down the narrow streets of Florence, but more imperiously, more impetuously, after all these years of silence. Now Flush knew what men can never know — love pure, love simple, love entire; love that brings no train of care in its wake; that has no shame; no remorse; that is here, that is gone, as the bee on the flower is here and is gone. Today the flower is a rose, tomorrow a lily; now it is the wild thistle on the moor, now the pouched and portentous orchid of the conservatory. So variously, so carelessly Flush embraced the spotted spaniel down the alley, and the brindled dog and the yellow dog — it did not matter which. To Flush it was all the same. He followed the horn wherever the horn blew and the wind wafted it. Love was all; love was enough. No one blamed him for his escapades. Mr. Browning merely laughed —“Quite disgraceful for a respectable dog like him”— when Flush returned very late at night or early the next morning. And Mrs. Browning laughed too, as Flush flung himself down on the bedroom floor and slept soundly upon the arms of the Guidi family inlaid in scagliola.

For at Casa Guidi the rooms were bare. All those draped objects of his cloistered and secluded days had vanished. The bed was a bed; the wash-stand was a wash-stand. Everything was itself and not another thing. The drawing-room was large and sprinkled with a few old carved chairs of ebony. Over the fire hung a mirror with two cupids to hold the lights. Mrs. Browning herself had discarded her Indian shawls. She wore a cap made of some thin bright silk that her husband liked. Her hair was brushed in a new way. And when the sun had gone down and the shutters had been raised she paced the balcony dressed in thin white muslin. She loved to sit there looking, listening, watching the people in the street.

They had not been long in Florence before one night there was such a shouting and trampling in the street that they ran to the balcony to see what was happening. A vast crowd was surging underneath. They were carrying banners and shouting and singing. All the windows were full of faces; all the balconies were full of figures. The people in the windows were tossing flowers and laurel leaves on to the people in the street; and the people in the street — grave men, gay young women — were kissing each other and raising their babies to the people in the balconies. Mr. and Mrs. Browning leant over the balustrade and clapped and clapped. Banner after banner passed. The torches flashed their light on them. “Liberty” was written on one; “The Union of Italy” on another; and “The Memory of the Martyrs” and “Viva Pio Nono” and “Viva Leopoldo Secondo”— for three and a half hours the banners went by and the people cheered and Mr. and Mrs. Browning stood with six candles burning on the balcony, waving and waving. For some time Flush too, stretched between them with his paws over the sill, did his best to rejoice. But at last — he could not conceal it — he yawned. “He confessed at last that he thought they were rather long about it,” Mrs. Browning observed. A weariness, a doubt, a ribaldry possessed him. What was it all for? he asked himself. Who was this Grand Duke and what had he promised? Why were they all so absurdly excited? — for the ardour of Mrs. Browning, waving and waving, as the banners passed, somehow annoyed him. Such enthusiasm for a Grand Duke was exaggerated, he felt. And then, as the Grand Duke passed, he became aware that a little dog had stopped at the door. Seizing his chance when Mrs. Browning was more than usually enthusiastic, he slipped down from the balcony and made off. Through the banners and the crowds he followed her. She fled further and further into the heart of Florence. Far away sounded the shouting; the cheers of the people died down into silence. The lights of the torches were extinguished. Only a star or two shone in the ripples of the Arno where Flush lay with the spotted spaniel by his side, couched in the shell of an old basket on the mud. There tranced in love they lay till the sun rose in the sky. Flush did not return until nine next morning, and Mrs. Browning greeted him rather ironically — he might at least, she thought, have remembered that it was the first anniversary of her wedding day. But she supposed “he had been very much amused.” It was true. While she had found an inexplicable satisfaction in the trampling of forty thousand people, in the promises of Grand Dukes and the windy aspirations of banners, Flush infinitely preferred the little dog at the door.

It cannot be doubted that Mrs. Browning and Flush were reaching different conclusions in their voyages of discovery — she a Grand Duke, he a spotted spaniel; — and yet the tie which bound them together was undeniably still binding. No sooner had Flush abolished “must” and raced free through the emerald grass of the Cascine gardens where the pheasants fluttered red and gold, than he felt a check. Once more he was thrown back on his haunches. At first it was nothing — a hint merely — only that Mrs. Browning in the spring of 1849 became busy with her needle. And yet there was something in the sight that gave Flush pause. She was not used to sew. He noted that Wilson moved a bed and she opened a drawer to put white clothes inside it. Raising his head from the tiled floor, he looked, he listened attentively. Was something once more about to happen? He looked anxiously for signs of trunks and packing. Was there to be another flight, another escape? But an escape to what, from what? There is nothing to be afraid of here, he assured Mrs. Browning. They need neither of them worry themselves in Florence about Mr. Taylor and dogs’ heads wrapped up in brown paper parcels. Yet he was puzzled. The signs of change, as he read them, did not signify escape. They signified, much more mysteriously, expectance. Something, he felt, as he watched Mrs. Browning so composedly, yet silently and steadfastly, stitching in her low chair, was coming that was inevitable; yet to be dreaded. As the weeks went on, Mrs. Browning scarcely left the house. She seemed, as she sat there, to anticipate some tremendous event. Was she about to encounter somebody, like the ruffian Taylor, and let him rain blows on her alone and unaided? Flush quivered with apprehension at the thought. Certainly she had no intention of running away. No boxes were packed. There was no sign that anybody was about to leave the house — rather there were signs that somebody was coming. In his jealous anxiety Flush scrutinised each new-comer. There were many now — Miss Blagden, Mr. Landor, Hattie Hosmer, Mr. Lytton — ever so many ladies and gentlemen now came to Casa Guidi. Day after day Mrs. Browning sat there in her armchair quietly stitching.

Then one day early in March Mrs. Browning did not appear in the sitting-room at all. Other people came in and out; Mr. Browning and Wilson came in and out; and they came in and out so distractedly that Flush hid himself under the sofa. People were trampling up and down stairs, running and calling in low whispers and muted unfamiliar voices. They were moving upstairs in the bedroom. He crept further and further under the shadow of the sofa. He knew in every fibre of his body that some change was taking place — some awful event was happening. So he had waited, years ago, for the step of the hooded man on the staircase. And at last the door had opened and Miss Barrett had cried “Mr. Browning!” Who was coming now? What hooded man? As the day wore on, he was left completely alone. He lay in the drawing-room without food or drink; a thousand spotted spaniels might have sniffed at the door and he would have shrunk away from them. For as the hours passed he had an overwhelming sense that something was thrusting its way into the house from outside. He peeped out from beneath the flounces. The cupids holding the lights, the ebony chests, the French chairs, all looked thrust asunder; he himself felt as if he were being pushed up against the wall to make room for something that he could not see. Once he saw Mr. Browning, but he was not the same Mr. Browning; once Wilson, but she was changed too — as if they were both seeing the invisible presence that he felt.

At last Wilson, looking very flushed and untidy but triumphant, took him in her arms and carried him upstairs. They entered the bedroom. There was a faint bleating in the shadowed room — something waved on the pillow. It was a live animal. Independently of them all, without the street door being opened, out of herself in the room, alone, Mrs. Browning had become two people. The horrid thing waved and mewed by her side. Torn with rage and jealousy and some deep disgust that he could not hide, Flush struggled himself free and rushed downstairs. Wilson and Mrs. Browning called him back; they tempted him with caresses; they offered him titbits; but it was useless. He cowered away from the disgusting sight, the repulsive presence, wherever there was a shadowy sofa or a dark corner. “ . . . for a whole fortnight he fell into deep melancholy and was proof against all attentions lavished on him”— so Mrs. Browning, in the midst of all her other distractions, was forced to notice. And when we take, as we must, human minutes and hours and drop them into a dog’s mind and see how the minutes swell into hours and the hours into days, we shall not exaggerate if we conclude that Flush’s “deep melancholy” lasted six full months by the human clock. Many men and women have forgotten their hates and their loves in less.

But Flush was no longer the unschooled, untrained dog of Wimpole Street days. He had learnt his lesson. Wilson had struck him. He had been forced to swallow cakes that were stale when he might have eaten them fresh; he had sworn to love and not to bite. All this churned in his mind as he lay under the sofa; and at last he issued out. Again he was rewarded. At first, it must be admitted, the reward was insubstantial if not positively disagreeable. The baby was set on his back and Flush had to trot about with the baby pulling his ears. But he submitted with such grace, only turning round, when his ears were pulled, “to kiss the little bare, dimpled feet,” that, before three months had passed, this helpless, weak, puling, muling lump had somehow come to prefer him, “on the whole”— so Mrs. Browning said — to other people. And then, strangely enough, Flush found that he returned the baby’s affection. Did they not share something in common — did not the baby somehow resemble Flush in many ways? Did they not hold the same views, the same tastes? For instance, in the matter of scenery. To Flush all scenery was insipid. He had never, all these years, learnt to focus his eyes upon mountains. When they took him to Vallombrosa all the splendours of its woods had merely bored him. Now again, when the baby was a few months old, they went on another of those long expeditions in a travelling carriage. The baby lay on his nurse’s lap; Flush sat on Mrs. Browning’s knee. The carriage went on and on and on, painfully climbing the heights of the Apennines. Mrs. Browning was almost beside herself with delight. She could scarcely tear herself from the window. She could not find words enough in the whole of the English language to express what she felt. “ . . . the exquisite, almost visionary scenery of the Apennines, the wonderful variety of shape and colour, the sudden transitions and vital individuality of those mountains, the chestnut forests dropping by their own weight into the deep ravines, the rocks cloven and clawed by the living torrents, and the hills, hill above hill, piling up their grand existences as if they did it themselves, changing colour in the effort”— the beauty of the Apennines brought words to birth in such numbers that they positively crushed each other out of existence. But the baby and Flush felt none of this stimulus, none of this inadequacy. Both were silent. Flush drew “in his head from the window and didn’t consider it worth looking at. . . . He has a supreme contempt for trees and hills or anything of that kind,” Mrs. Browning concluded. The carriage rumbled on. Flush slept and the baby slept. Then at last there were lights and houses and men and women passing the windows. They had entered a village. Instantly Flush was all attention. “ . . . his eyes were starting out of his head with eagerness; he looked east, he looked west, you would conclude that he was taking notes or preparing them.” It was the human scene that stirred him, not beauty. Beauty, so it seems at least, had to be crystallised into a green or violet powder and puffed by some celestial syringe down the fringed channels that lay behind his nostrils before it touched Flush’s senses; and then it issued not in words, but in a silent rapture. Where Mrs. Browning saw, he smelt; where she wrote, he snuffed.

Here, then, the biographer must perforce come to a pause. Where two or three thousand words are insufficient for what we see — and Mrs. Browning had to admit herself beaten by the Apennines: “Of these things I cannot give you any idea,” she admitted — there are no more than two words and perhaps one-half for what we smell. The human nose is practically non-existent. 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. Not even Mr. Swinburne could have said what the smell of Wimpole Street meant to Flush on a hot afternoon in June. As for describing the smell of a spaniel mixed with the smell of torches, laurels, incense, banners, wax candles and a garland of rose leaves crushed by a satin heel that has been laid up in camphor, perhaps Shakespeare, had he paused in the middle of writing Antony and Cleopatra — But Shakespeare did not pause. Confessing our inadequacy, then, we can but note that to Flush Italy, in these the fullest, the freest, the happiest years of his life, meant mainly a succession of smells. Love, it must be supposed, was gradually losing its appeal. Smell remained. Now that they were established in Casa Guidi again, all had their avocations. Mr. Browning wrote regularly in one room; Mrs. Browning wrote regularly in another. The baby played in the nursery. But Flush wandered off into the streets of Florence to enjoy the rapture of smell. He threaded his path through main streets and back streets, through squares and alleys, by smell. He nosed his way from smell to smell; the rough, the smooth, the dark, the golden. He went in and out, up and down, where they beat brass, where they bake bread, where the women sit combing their hair, where the bird-cages are piled high on the causeway, where the wine spills itself in dark red stains on the pavement, where leather smells and harness and garlic, where cloth is beaten, where vine leaves tremble, where men sit and drink and spit and dice — he ran in and out, always with his nose to the ground, drinking in the essence; or with his nose in the air vibrating with the aroma. He slept in this hot patch of sun — how sun made the stone reek! he sought that tunnel of shade — how acid shade made the stone smell! He devoured whole bunches of ripe grapes largely because of their purple smell; he chewed and spat out whatever tough relic of goat or macaroni the Italian housewife had thrown from the balcony — goat and macaroni were raucous smells, crimson smells. He followed the swooning sweetness of incense into the violet intricacies of dark cathedrals; and, sniffing, tried to lap the gold on the window- stained tomb. Nor was his sense of touch much less acute. He knew Florence in its marmoreal smoothness and in its gritty and cobbled roughness. Hoary folds of drapery, smooth fingers and feet of stone received the lick of his tongue, the quiver of his shivering snout. Upon the infinitely sensitive pads of his feet he took the clear stamp of proud Latin inscriptions. In short, he knew Florence as no human being has ever known it; as Ruskin never knew it or George Eliot either. He knew it as only the dumb know. Not a single one of his myriad sensations ever submitted itself to the deformity of words.

But though it would be pleasant for the biographer to infer that Flush’s life in late middle age was an orgy of pleasure transcending all description; to maintain that while the baby day by day picked up a new word and thus removed sensation a little further beyond reach, Flush was fated to remain for ever in a Paradise where essences exist in their utmost purity, and the naked soul of things presses on the naked nerve — it would not be true. Flush lived in no such Paradise. The spirit, ranging from star to star, the bird whose furthest flight over polar snows or tropical forests never brings it within sight of human houses and their curling wood-smoke, may, for anything we know, enjoy such immunity, such integrity of bliss. But Flush had lain upon human knees and heard men’s voices. His flesh was veined with human passions; he knew all grades of jealousy, anger and despair. Now in summer he was scourged by fleas. 7 With a cruel irony the sun that ripened the grapes brought also the fleas. “ . . . Savonarola’s martyrdom here in Florence,” wrote Mrs. Browning, “is scarcely worse than Flush’s in the summer.” Fleas leapt to life in every corner of the Florentine houses; they skipped and hopped out of every cranny of the old stone; out of every fold of old tapestry; out of every cloak, hat and blanket. They nested in Flush’s fur. They bit their way into the thickest of his coat. He scratched and tore. His health suffered; he became morose, thin and feverish. Miss Mitford was appealed to. What remedy was there, Mrs. Browning wrote anxiously, for fleas? Miss Mitford, still sitting in her greenhouse at Three Mile Cross, still writing tragedies, put down her pen and looked up her old prescriptions — what Mayflower had taken, what Rosebud. But the fleas of Reading die at a pinch. The fleas of Florence are red and virile. To them Miss Mitford’s powders might well have been snuff. In despair Mr. and Mrs. Browning went down on their knees beside a pail of water and did their best to exorcise the pest with soap and scrubbing-brush. It was in vain. At last one day Mr. Browning, taking Flush for a walk, noticed that people pointed; he heard one man lay a finger to his nose and whisper “La rogna” (mange). As by this time “Robert is as fond of Flush as I am,” to take his walk of an afternoon with a friend and to hear him thus stigmatised was intolerable. Robert, his wife wrote, “wouldn’t bear it any longer.” Only one remedy remained, but it was a remedy that was almost as drastic as the disease itself. However democratic Flush had become and careless of the signs of rank, he still remained what Philip Sidney had called him, a gentleman by birth. He carried his pedigree on his back. His coat meant to him what a gold watch inscribed with the family arms means to an impoverished squire whose broad acres have shrunk to that single circle. It was the coat that Mr. Browning now proposed to sacrifice. He called Flush to him and, “taking a pair of scissors, clipped him all over into the likeness of a lion.”

As Robert Browning snipped, as the insignia of a cocker spaniel fell to the floor, as the travesty of quite a different animal rose round his neck, Flush felt himself emasculated, diminished, ashamed. What am I now? he thought, gazing into the glass. And the glass replied with the brutal sincerity of glasses, “You are nothing.” He was nobody. Certainly he was no longer a cocker spaniel. But as he gazed, his ears bald now, and uncurled, seemed to twitch. It was as if the potent spirits of truth and laughter were whispering in them. To be nothing — is that not, after all, the most satisfactory state in the whole world? He looked again. There was his ruff. To caricature the pomposity of those who claim that they are something — was that not in its way a career? Anyhow, settle the matter as he might, there could be no doubt that he was free from fleas. He shook his ruff. He danced on his nude, attenuated legs. His spirits rose. So might a great beauty, rising from a bed of sickness and finding her face eternally disfigured, make a bonfire of clothes and cosmetics, and laugh with joy to think that she need never look in the glass again or dread a lover’s coolness or a rival’s beauty. So might a clergyman, cased for twenty years in starch and broadcloth, cast his collar into the dustbin and snatch the works of Voltaire from the cupboard. So Flush scampered off clipped all over into the likeness of a lion, but free from fleas. “Flush,” Mrs. Browning wrote to her sister, “is wise.” She was thinking perhaps of the Greek saying that happiness is only to be reached through suffering. The true philosopher is he who has lost his coat but is free from fleas.

But Flush had not long to wait before his newly-won philosophy was put to the test. Again in the summer of 1852 there were signs at Casa Guidi of one of those crises which, gathering soundlessly as a drawer opens or as a piece of string is left dangling from a box, are to a dog as menacing as the clouds which foretell lightning to a shepherd or as the rumours which foretell war to a statesman. Another change was indicated, another journey. Well, what of that? Trunks were hauled down and corded. The baby was carried out in his nurse’s arms. Mr. and Mrs. Browning appeared, dressed for travelling. There was a cab at the door. Flush waited philosophically in the hall. When they were ready he was ready. Now that they were all seated in the carriage with one bound Flush sprang lightly in after them. To Venice, to Rome, to Paris — where were they going? All countries were equal to him now; all men were his brothers. He had learnt that lesson at last. But when finally he emerged from obscurity he had need of all his philosophy — he was in London.

Houses spread to right and left in sharp avenues of regular brick. The pavement was cold and hard beneath his feet. And there, issuing from a mahogany door with a brass knocker, was a lady bountifully apparelled in flowing robes of purple plush. A light wreath starred with flowers rested on her hair. Gathering her draperies about her, she glanced disdainfully up and down the street while a footman, stooping, let down the step of the barouche landau. All Welbeck Street — for Welbeck Street it was — was wrapped in a splendour of red light — a light not clear and fierce like the Italian light, but tawny and troubled with the dust of a million wheels, with the trampling of a million hooves. The London season was at its height. A pall of sound, a cloud of interwoven humming, fell over the city in one confluent growl. By came a majestic deerhound led on a chain by a page. A policeman swinging past with rhythmical stride, cast his bull’s-eye from side to side. Odours of stew, odours of beef, odours of basting, odours of beef and cabbage rose from a thousand basements. A flunkey in livery dropped a letter into a box.

Overcome by the magnificence of the metropolis, Flush paused for a moment with his foot on the doorstep. Wilson paused too. How paltry it seemed now, the civilisation of Italy, its Courts and its revolutions, its Grand Dukes and their bodyguards! She thanked God, as the policeman passed, that she had not married Signor Righi after all. And then a sinister figure issued from the public-house at the corner. A man leered. With one spring Flush bolted indoors.

For some weeks now he was closely confined to a lodging-house sitting-room in Welbeck Street. For confinement was still necessary. The cholera had come, and it is true that the cholera had done something to improve the condition of the Rookeries; but not enough, for still dogs were stolen and the dogs of Wimpole Street had still to be led on chains. Flush went into society, of course. He met dogs at the pillar-box and outside the public- house; and they welcomed him back with the inherent good breeding of their kind. Just as an English peer who has lived a lifetime in the East and contracted some of the habits of the natives — rumour hints indeed that he has turned Moslem and had a son by a Chinese washerwoman — finds, when he takes his place at Court, that old friends are ready enough to overlook these aberrations and he is asked to Chatsworth, though no mention is made of his wife and it is taken for granted that he will join the family at prayers — so the pointers and setters of Wimpole Street welcomed Flush among them and overlooked the condition of his coat. But there was a certain morbidity, it seemed to Flush now, among the dogs of London. It was common knowledge that Mrs. Carlyle’s dog Nero had leapt from a top-storey window with the intention of committing suicide. 8 He had found the strain of life in Cheyne Row intolerable, it was said. Indeed Flush could well believe it now that he was back again in Welbeck Street. The confinement, the crowd of little objects, the black-beetles by night, the bluebottles by day, the lingering odours of mutton, the perpetual presence on the sideboard of bananas — all this, together with the proximity of several men and women, heavily dressed and not often or indeed completely washed, wrought on his temper and strained his nerves. He lay for hours under the lodging-house chiffonier. It was impossible to run out of doors. The front door was always locked. He had to wait for somebody to lead him on a chain.

Two incidents alone broke the monotony of the weeks he spent in London. One day late that summer the Brownings went to visit the Rev. Charles Kingsley at Farnham. In Italy the earth would have been bare and hard as brick. Fleas would have been rampant. Languidly one would have dragged oneself from shadow to shadow, grateful even for the bar of shade cast by the raised arm of one of Donatello’s statues. But here at Farnham there were fields of green grass; there were pools of blue water; there were woods that murmured, and turf so fine that the paws bounced as they touched it. The Brownings and the Kingsleys spent the day together. And once more, as Flush trotted behind them, the old trumpets blew; the old ecstasy returned — was it hare or was it fox? Flush tore over the heaths of Surrey as he had not run since the old days at Three Mile Cross. A pheasant went rocketing up in a spurt of purple and gold. He had almost shut his teeth on the tail feathers when a voice rang out. A whip cracked. Was it the Rev. Charles Kingsley who called him sharply to heel? At any rate he ran no more. The woods of Farnham were strictly preserved.

A few days later he was lying in the sitting-room at Welbeck Street, when Mrs. Browning came in dressed for walking and called him from under the chiffonier. She slipped the chain on to his collar and, for the first time since September 1846, they walked up Wimpole Street together. When they came to the door of number fifty they stopped as of old. Just as of old they waited. The butler just as of old was very slow in coming. At length the door opened. Could that be Catiline lying couched on the mat? The old toothless dog yawned and stretched himself and took no notice. Upstairs they crept as stealthily, as silently as once before they had come down. Very quietly, opening the doors as if she were afraid of what she might see there, Mrs. Browning went from room to room. A gloom descended upon her as she looked. “ . . . they seemed to me,” she wrote, “smaller and darker, somehow, and the furniture wanted fitness and convenience.” The ivy was still tapping on the back bedroom window-pane. The painted blind still obscured the houses. Nothing had been changed. Nothing had happened all these years. So she went from room to room, sadly remembering. But long before she had finished her inspection, Flush was in a fever of anxiety. Suppose Mr. Barrett were to come in and find them? Suppose that with one frown, with one stare, he turned the key and locked them in the back bedroom for ever? At last Mrs. Browning shut the doors and went downstairs again very quietly. Yes, she said, it seemed to her that the house wanted cleaning.

After that, Flush had only one wish left in him — to leave London, to leave England for ever. He was not happy until he found himself on the deck of the Channel steamer crossing to France. It was a rough passage. The crossing took eight hours. As the steamer tossed and wallowed, Flush turned over in his mind a tumult of mixed memories — of ladies in purple plush, of ragged men with bags; of Regent’s Park, and Queen Victoria sweeping past with outriders; of the greenness of English grass and the rankness of English pavements — all this passed through his mind as he lay on deck; and, looking up, he caught sight of a stern, tall man leaning over the rail.

“Mr. Carlyle!” he heard Mrs. Browning exclaim; whereupon — the crossing, it must be remembered, was a bad one — Flush was violently sick. Sailors came running with pails and mops. “ . . . he was ordered off the deck on purpose, poor dog,” said Mrs. Browning. For the deck was still English; dogs must not be sick on decks. Such was his last salute to the shores of his native land.

6 “Lily Wilson fell in love with Signor Righi, the guardsman.” The life of Lily Wilson is extremely obscure and thus cries aloud for the services of a biographer. No human figure in the Browning letters, save the principals, more excites our curiosity and baffles it. Her Christian name was Lily, her surname Wilson. That is all we know of her birth and upbringing. Whether she was the daughter of a farmer in the neighbourhood of Hope End, and became favourably known to the Barrett cook by the decency of her demeanour and the cleanliness of her apron, so much so that when she came up to the great house on some errand, Mrs. Barrett made an excuse to come into the room just then and thought so well of her that she appointed her to be Miss Elizabeth’s maid; or whether she was a Cockney; or whether she was from Scotland — it is impossible to say. At any rate she was in service with Miss Barrett in the year 1846. She was “an expensive servant”— her wages were £16 a year. Since she spoke almost as seldom as Flush, the outlines of her character are little known; and since Miss Barrett never wrote a poem about her, her appearance is far less familiar than his. Yet it is clear from indications in the letters that she was in the beginning one of those demure, almost inhumanly correct British maids who were at that time the glory of the British basement. It is obvious that Wilson was a stickler for rights and ceremonies. Wilson undoubtedly revered “the room”; Wilson would have been the first to insist that under servants must eat their pudding in one place, upper servants in another. All this is implicit in the remark she made when she beat Flush with her hand “because it is right.” Such respect for convention, it need hardly be said, breeds extreme horror of any breach of it; so that when Wilson was confronted with the lower orders in Manning Street she was far more alarmed, and far more certain that the dog-stealers were murderers, than Miss Barrett was. At the same time the heroic way in which she overcame her terror and went with Miss Barrett in the cab shows how deeply the other convention of loyalty to her mistress was ingrained in her. Where Miss Barrett went, Wilson must go too. This principle was triumphantly demonstrated by her conduct at the time of the elopement. Miss Barrett had been doubtful of Wilson’s courage; but her doubts were unfounded. “Wilson,” she wrote — and these were the last words she ever wrote to Mr. Browning as Miss Barrett —“has been perfect to me. And I . . . calling her ‘timid’ and afraid of her timidity! I begin to think that none are so bold as the timid, when they are fairly roused.” It is worth, parenthetically, dwelling for a second on the extreme precariousness of a servant’s life. If Wilson had not gone with Miss Barrett, she would have been, as Miss Barrett knew, “turned into the street before sunset,” with only a few shillings, presumably, saved from her sixteen pounds a year. And what then would have been her fate? Since English fiction in the ‘forties scarcely deals with the lives of ladies’ maids, and biography had not then cast its searchlight so low, the question must remain a question. But Wilson took the plunge. She declared that she would “go anywhere in the world with me.” She left the basement, the room, the whole of that world of Wimpole Street, which to Wilson meant all civilisation, all right thinking and decent living, for the wild debauchery and irreligion of a foreign land. Nothing is more curious than to observe the conflict that took place in Italy between Wilson’s English gentility and her natural passions. She derided the Italian Court; she was shocked by Italian pictures. But, though “she was struck back by the indecency of the Venus,” Wilson, greatly to her credit, seems to have bethought her that women are naked when they take their clothes off. Even I myself, she may have thought, am naked for two or three seconds daily. And so “She thinks she shall try again, and the troublesome modesty may subside, who knows?” That it did subside rapidly is plain. Soon she not merely approved of Italy; she had fallen in love with Signor Righi of the Grand Ducal bodyguard —“all highly respectable and moral men, and some six feet high”— was wearing an engagement ring; was dismissing a London suitor; and was learning to speak Italian. Then the clouds descend again; when they lift they show us Wilson deserted —“the faithless Righi had backed out of his engagement to Wilson.” Suspicion attaches to his brother, a wholesale haberdasher at Prato. When Righi resigned from the Ducal bodyguard, he became, on his brother’s advice, a retail haberdasher at Prato. Whether his position required a knowledge of haberdashery in his wife, whether one of the girls of Prato could supply it, it is certain that he did not write to Wilson as often as he should have done. But what conduct it was on the part of this highly respectable and moral man that led Mrs. Browning to exclaim in 1850, “[Wilson] is over it completely, which does the greatest credit to her good sense and rectitude of character. How could she continue to love such a man?”— why Righi had shrunk to “such a man” in so short a time, it is impossible to say. Deserted by Righi, Wilson became more and more attached to the Browning family. She discharged not only the duties of a lady’s maid, but cooked knead cakes, made dresses, and became a devoted nurse to Penini, the baby; so that in time the baby himself exalted her to the rank of the family, where she justly belonged, and refused to call her anything but Lily. In 1855 Wilson married Romagnoli, the Brownings’ manservant, “a good tender-hearted man”; and for some time the two kept house for the Brownings. But in 1859 Robert Browning “accepted office as Landor’s guardian,” an office of great delicacy and responsibility, for Landor’s habits were difficult; “of restraint he has not a grain,” Mrs. Browning wrote, “and of suspiciousness many grains.” In these circumstances Wilson was appointed “his duenna” with a salary of twenty-two pounds a year “besides what is left of his rations.” Later her wages were increased to thirty pounds, for to act as duenna to “an old lion” who has “the impulses of a tiger,” throws his plate out of the window or dashes it on the ground if he dislikes his dinner, and suspects servants of opening desks, entailed, as Mrs. Browning observed, “certain risks, and I for one would rather not meet them.” But to Wilson, who had known Mr. Barrett and the spirits, a few plates more or less flying out of the window or dashed upon the floor was a matter of little consequence — such risks were all in the day’s work.

That day, so far as it is still visible to us, was certainly a strange one. Whether it began or not in some remote English village, it ended in Venice in the Palazzo Rezzonico. There at least she was still living in the year 1897, a widow, in the house of the little boy whom she had nursed and loved — Mr. Barrett Browning. A very strange day it had been, she may have thought, as she sat in the red Venetian sunset, an old woman, dreaming. Her friends, married to farm hands, still stumbled up the English lanes to fetch a pint of beer. And she had eloped with Miss Barrett to Italy; she had seen all kinds of queer things — revolutions, guardsmen, spirits; Mr. Landor throwing his plate out of the window. Then Mrs. Browning had died — there can have been no lack of thoughts in Wilson’s old head as she sat at the window of the Palazzo Rezzonico in the evening. But nothing can be more vain than to pretend that we can guess what they were, for she was typical of the great army of her kind — the inscrutable, the all- but-silent, the all-but-invisible servant maids of history. “A more honest, true and affectionate heart than Wilson’s cannot be found”— her mistress’s words may serve her for epitaph.

7 “he was scourged by fleas.” It appears that Italy was famous for its fleas in the middle of the nineteenth century. Indeed, they served to break down conventions that were otherwise insurmountable. For example, when Nathaniel Hawthorne went to tea with Miss Bremer in Rome (1858), “we spoke of fleas — insects that, in Rome, come home to everybody’s business and bosom, and are so common and inevitable, that no delicacy is felt about alluding to the sufferings they inflict. Poor little Miss Bremer was tormented with one while turning out our tea. . . . ”

8 “Nero had leapt from a top window.” Nero (c. 1849-60) was, according to Carlyle, “A little Cuban (Maltese? and otherwise mongrel) shock, mostly white — a most affectionate, lively little dog, otherwise of small merit, and little or no training.” Material for a life of him abounds, but this is not the occasion to make use of it. It is enough to say that he was stolen; that he brought Carlyle a cheque to buy a horse with tied round his neck; that “twice or thrice I flung him into the sea [at Aberdour], which he didn’t at all like”; that in 1850 he sprang from the library window, and, clearing the area spikes, fell “plash” on to the pavement. “It was after breakfast,” Mrs. Carlyle says, “and he had been standing at the open window, watching the birds. . . . Lying in my bed, I heard thro’ the deal partition Elizabeth scream: Oh God! oh Nero! and rush downstairs like a strong wind out at the street door . . . then I sprang to meet her in my night-shift. . . . Mr. C. came down from his bedroom with his chin all over soap and asked, ‘Has anything happened to Nero?’—‘Oh, sir, he must have broken all his legs, he leapt out at your window!’—‘God bless me!’ said Mr. C. and returned to finish his shaving.” No bones were broken, however, and he survived, to be run over by a butcher’s cart, and to die at last from the effects of the accident on 1st February, 1860. He is buried at the top of the garden at Cheyne Row under a small stone tablet.

Whether he wished to kill himself, or whether, as Mrs. Carlyle insinuates, he was merely jumping after birds, might be the occasion for an extremely interesting treatise on canine psychology. Some hold that Byron’s dog went mad in sympathy with Byron; others that Nero was driven to desperate melancholy by associating with Mr. Carlyle. The whole question of dogs’ relation to the spirit of the age, whether it is possible to call one dog Elizabethan, another Augustan, another Victorian, together with the influence upon dogs of the poetry and philosophy of their masters, deserves a fuller discussion than can here be given it. For the present, Nero’s motives must remain obscure.


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