Tuesday 31 May 2022

Virginia Woolf in Whitechapel: writing about dogs

 J.R. Ackerley's Tulip led me to Virginia Woolf's Flush, A Biography, which I can nearly imagine her taking up on a whim after the ardours of The Waves. Elizabeth Barrett's dog Flush, who drank from a purple dish and slept on a sofa at Miss Barrett's feet, kept Virginia Woolf in her own territory, if a hundred years earlier. Flush lived in Wimpole Street, and, as we learn, 'as long as Wimpole Street remains, civilisation is secure'. However, Flush is not secure if he is not on a chain when Miss Barrett goes shopping. And one day, on an errand in Vere Street, she forgot. 

In the 1840s, Mr Taylor and his society of thieves made a living from Wimpole Street dogs and other valuables. Flush was a pedigree spaniel, with all the right points on top of his head and around his paws. If the Barretts did not pay six guineas, this pedigree head and these pedigree paws would arrive in Wimpole street in a bloody package the very next day.

The description of Flush's days in Whitechapel occupies about one fifth of this short book. He is in a chill, damp, low, dark room, with broken chairs and a tumbled mattress.

Great boots and draggled skirts kept stumbling in and out. Flies buzzed on scraps of old meat that were decaying on the floor. Children crawled out from dark corners and pinched his ears. He whined, and heavy hand beat him over the head. He cowered down on the few inches of damp brick against the wall. Now he could see that the floor was crowded with animals of different kinds. Dogs tore and worried a festering bone that they had got between them. Their ribs stood out from their coats — they were half famished, dirty, diseased, uncombed, brushed; yet all of them, Flush could see, were dogs of the highest breeding, chained dogs, footmen's dogs, like himself.

Rebecca West wrote that this was not one of VW's best books, and it isn't. But here is Virginia Woolf, who walked London, who went to live in Bloomsbury from Hyde Park Gate, which was a déclassé move in the 1920s, writing from her walks in still less salubrious parts of London in a still less salubrious era nearly a hundred years earlier. I wonder what she read for her picture of teeming people living above cattle and pigs. Mayhew's London, perhaps. 

Flush ends his days in Italy. The worst he suffers is mange, and a lion cut to relieve his itching in the heat. 

Six months after the publication of Flush she and Leonard take a trip to Ireland, 'this downtrodden land'. Galway, for example, had two great bookshops and is 'otherwise wild, poor, sordid'. Wherever they go they tend to meet people who accept them as 'their sort', some indeed who encourage the Woolfs to come and live in Ireland.

No, it wouldn't do living in Ireland, in spite of the rocks & the desolate bays. It would lower the pulse of the heart;: & all one's mind wd. run out in talk.
We (P & I) have lately become citizens of Ireland, after very long sojourns and quite a bit of talk, as well as swathes of private silence in the oasis we have created. 'This downtrodden land' is today the 4th richest by GDP in the OECD, richer than America, technically. As unequal as ever, but in new ways. Still talking roundly. 

VW is much taken with Mrs Ida Fitzgerald of the Glenbeigh Hotel. 
However I can give no notion of the flowing, yet formed sentences, the richness & ease of the language; the lay out, dexterity & adroitness of the arrangement ... Talk is to her an intoxicant, but there is ... something heartless about the I(rish); quite cold indifferent sarcastic, for all their melody, their fluency, their adorable ease and forthcomingness. She was very much on the spot, accurate, managing, shrewd, hard headed, analytic. Why aren't these people the greatest novelists in the world?
'Everything is the proper stuff of fiction' said Virginia Woolf. Flush, a pedigree spaniel, as much as Mrs Ida Fitzgerald of the Glenbeigh Hotel. 

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