Monday, March 27, 2017

Biographies I Wish Virginia Woolf Had Written

Virginia Woolf's Flush: A Biography is one of the more adventurous biographical projects of the modern era, unique both in form and content. Woolf's experiments with biography were varied and highly experimental: her biography of Roger Fry is a textured exploration of her friend and colleague's life that dramatizes and enters imaginary spaces, but is still recognizable as a biography, while Orlando is pure novel, a carefully delineated chronology of an immortal English nobleman who is transformed into a woman. Flush, on the other hand, occupies its own strange place. By explicitly referring to it as a biography, Woolf asks the reader to take this story of a dog's life, told from a dog's perspective, emphasizing smell and taste over both sight and sound, with the seriousness demanded by scholarly research. Flush was Elizabeth Barrett Browning's cossetted spaniel, an adored pet that accompanied her through the most eventful years of her life, many of her major publications, her romance with Browning, and her elopement to Italy. These are the stuff of histories and biographies that Woolf makes use of in order to ground her own project in reality, but the major events of Flush's life are not those of his mistress. Flush perceives Browning's entrance into his human's life as a cruel intrusion, he is dognapped in a horrifying episode with Dickensian overtones, and he develops more egalitarian canine companionships in the sunnier climes of Italy. Thus, Flush functions across a multitude of genres: biography of both a dog and his mistress, a panorama of England and Italy in the mid-nineteenth century, a modernist novel, and an experiment in exploring the canine perspective with as little anthropomorphism as possible.

Despite this complexity, Flush is usually regarded as a lesser work in the Woolf canon. At least in part, this critical reaction should be considered as a slightly snobby prejudice against books about animals, though only a very eccentric librarian would shelve this book with such children's animal classics as The Jungle Book, Winnie-the-Pooh, Charlotte's Web, or Black Beauty. Far from viewing Flush as a lesser work, I rather wish that Woolf had written more than one such experiment in biography, and I would suggest the following, very promising subjects for such a biographical undertaking:

Beppo - Lord Byron's cat shares a name with the hero of a poem about a pirate who returns to his Venetian lady. A cat's eye view of Byronic adventures would surely prove to have a spicy flavor.

Bismarck, Disraeli, and Gladstone - Florence Nightingale's politically dubbed cats were beloved creatures treated to the most princely excesses, pampered, cossetted, and fed on delicacies. Bismarck, particularly favored, is said to have taken rice pudding with his tea.

Dinah - Alice Liddell's cat can already lay claim to literary immortality, given her small, but significant role in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but how interesting it would be to eavesdrop on Alice's rather queasily intimate colloquies with the stuttering Oxford don with the sly ironies only a cat can command!

Grip - Charles Dickens's raven was immortalized by his human in Barnaby Rudge, but met his demise as a result of his penchant for drinking paint.

Keeper - Emily Brontë's fierce mongrel was huge and highly selective, deigning to tolerate the company of very few humans and dogs. Legend has it that Keeper was began a skirmish and Emily threw herself into the fray, tossing pepper into the enemy dogs' eyes to extricate her pet.

Lucifer - Cardinal Richelieu, remembered today as the three musketeers' mortal enemy, kept a truly obscene number of cats over the years, but surely one could count on this maleficently dubbed feline to tell a juicy tale of royal intrigues and schemes.

Maude - The White House was a veritable menagerie when Theodore Roosevelt and his family occupied it. Maude, a lovely white pig, shared the Roosevelts' attentions with many creatures, including a badger, Josiah, a bear, Jonathan Edwards, a blue macaw, Eli Yale, and, most strangely, a hyena (unnamed!).

Minou - George Sand's cat supposedly shared a breakfast dish with her cross-dressing and novel-exuding mistress. A cat's-eye-view of Chopin in all his hypochondriac glory would be a delicate dish for Woolf to dismember.

Pinka - Finally, Woolf herself adored her pets and what a treasure of a biography she might have written from the perspective of her own beloved spaniel, who was photographed for the first edition of Flush.

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