MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.3 (2002) 614-636
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Of Fanciers, Footnotes, and Fascism:
Virginia Woolf's Flush
At the age of twenty-four, Virginia Woolf—just embarking on her public, literary career—wrote a review of Percy Lubbock's Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Her Letters (1906), in which she asserted that Barrett Browning "as a poet, has ceased to play much part in our lives" ("Poets' Letters" 101). She has been disposed of "as an extravagant freak of early Victorian taste" (102). Woolf, along with Lubbock, was intent on reclaiming Barrett Browning's writing, as she was with so many women writers, aware in particular of the way in which the story of Barrett Browning's life became "so monstrous that its real effect upon Mrs Browning is obscured" (102). In Woolf's earliest journalistic engagement with Barrett Browning, she was concerned with the effects of both fashion and biography on literary reputation, as well as the relegation of writing that results from such oscillations in public opinion.
Toward the other end of Woolf's career, some twenty-four years later, Barrett Browning entered her imagination again, this time, in a much more substantial way. Barrett Browning's writing, her life, her reputation, and of course her dog, Flush, are behind much of Woolf's thinking throughout the 1930s. In Flush, specifically, Woolf plays out her ideas on the reception of women writers and the links between sexism and other [End Page 614] discourses of control. I want to offer a re-evaluation of Flush, a text whose supposed anomalousness has often caused it to be read out of context—or not to be read at all. Woolf's interest in Barrett Browning was all to do with context: the phenomenon of Barrett Browning's popularity and decline, as well as Barrett Browning's own interest in contemporary politics, seen particularly in "Aurora Leigh," the text that caught Woolf's imagination. Woolf understood that the fascination with Barrett Browning's life had prevented readers from fully appreciating the politics of her writing.
In turn, the comedy and "lightheartedness" of Flush has prevented critics from fully appreciating the politics of this work, specifically the text's engagement not only with the political and social contexts of mid-nineteenth-century London, but also of early 1930s London—the time of the text's composition. I want to argue that Flush needs to be placed more carefully in both the context of Woolf's own critical reception and her fears about the growth of fascism in Britain and Europe. More importantly, I contend that these contexts are not working in isolation. In Flush, Woolf explores the politics of relegation and hierarchy, linking systems of value along literary (canonical and generic), class, gender, species, and racial lines.
The reading and research that Woolf undertook in order to represent Flush and Barrett Browning's London (the division between Whitechapel and Wimpole Street, the chronic poverty in the metropolis), caused her to make links with changes occurring in London while she was writing. These links included not only the dire economic and employment situation of the early 1930s, but also the familiar attendant discourses of degeneration, disease, and "foreignness." In particular, a crucial subtext of Flush is the rise of fascism in Britain, as manifested in Oswald Mosley's New Party. This context is especially poignant given Woolf's own proximity to the New Party, through Harold Nicolson, as I will explain. Through this reading, Flush becomes not only a political text in its own right, but one that needs to be placed alongside Woolf's other texts of the decade, particularly Three Guineas. Links between her "biography" and her 1938 essay can be made because of her depiction of Mr. Barrett in both texts, but also because they both deal with the discourses underpinning fascism. While acknowledging Flush's comedy and its unique place in Woolf's oeuvre, I want to suggest greater concurrence with her [End Page 615] other texts from that decade. This kind of reading of Flush illuminates...