Essay by Helena Almeida
Art by Maggie Lu
A woman and her dog, living through the words of Virginia Woolf, experience the joys and sorrows of friendship—of a friendship that spans the life of that dog from his puppyhood to his last breath and that leaves its mark upon the woman. Woolf’s fictionalized biography Flush depicts the dynamic relationship between the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Flush, her English cocker spaniel. In their union, the two are “alone together” (Woolf 22, 36). Deceptively simple, this pairing of words points to ideas and processes that underpin the foundations of friendship. This essay examines the various meanings of “alone together” and considers the novel alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Friendship.” Investigating Woolf’s intriguing oxymoron, especially when placed in conversation with Emerson’s philosophy of friendship, offers a way of reading Woolf’s characters and their relationships that ultimately illuminates our understanding of the nature of friendship across species and between humans.
“Alone” implies the delineation of identity that separates the self from others. Elizabeth Barrett’s individuality is relatively easy to ascertain: she is a human being with thoughts and a will of her own. Even through the displaced canine perspective of the novel, her personhood is clear. Flush’s identity, on the other hand, is the terrain of greater creative speculation. In our society, non-human animals are not universally held to possess the cognitive abilities that give rise to subjectivity, and their inability to express themselves through human language perpetuates the mystery. Woolf, however, counters our perception of animals by portraying her canine protagonist with an active, inquisitive mind and “an even excessive appreciation of human emotions” (Woolf 6). Because most of the story is told through Flush’s viewpoint, using a narrative technique termed internal focalization or figural narration (Herman 554), readers become fully aware of his ability to comprehend the world. The narrator vividly describes how Flush understands reality, and the use of free indirect discourse is particularly effective in demonstrating the dog’s sensitivities and worldview. Although Mr. Barrett and Mr. Browning’s willingness to have Flush sacrificed when he is captured by the thieves of Whitechapel suggests their disregard for his consciousness, other characters recognize the dog for the sentient being readers know him to be. Miss Barrett may at times misunderstand or underestimate Flush, but she never fails to appreciate the existence of her companion’s subjectivity—which is significant in her friendship with the cocker spaniel.
Prior to Flush’s arrival, Miss Barrett seems to have had a rather solitary existence, giving even more weight to the word “alone” and to how this concept is transformed when the two characters are “alone together.” Confined to her bedroom, her social interactions are limited to those who come to meet her and, as much as she may enjoy their society, she is “relieved by solitude” (Emerson) when they leave: “Miss Barrett sank back very white, very tired on her pillows. Flush crept closer to her. Mercifully they were alone again” (Woolf 28). Emerson declares that “Almost every man we meet requires some civility.” Indeed, when visitors are expected, “The bed would be carefully disguised as a sofa… Miss Barrett herself would be wrapped becomingly in Indian shawls; the toilet things would be scrupulously hidden under the busts of Chaucer and Homer” (Woolf 27). More than just acts of hospitality, these preparations aim at disguising certain parts of Elizabeth’s life, and she feels the need to dissemble even when accompanied by members of her own household: “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” (Woolf 28) and Flush came to take her dinner. Later, her father comes to check if she had eaten as he commanded and is satisfied at “his daughter’s obedience” (Woolf 29). Such efforts reflect the hardship of pleasing others which Emerson discusses as an impediment to genuine relationships, and they take a toll on one’s experience of sincere subjectivity. Perhaps Elizabeth, at this point in her life, would share Emerson’s sentiment that “All association must be a compromise, and, what is worst, the very flower and aroma of the flower of each of the beautiful natures disappears as they approach each other.” Emerson further proposes that “Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins.” As far as Miss Barrett’s feelings are discernable in Woolf’s work, she does seem to find truth only in solitude—that is, until Flush comes into her life.
When the narrator declares that Miss Barrett is alone with Flush, we do not take that to mean she is alone because her subjectivity occupies a space devoid of other minds. With him, she does not feel the need to alter her behaviour in the least, but we can understand that there is a difference between the sorrowful solitude that marks her life before Flush’s arrival and the quiet, joyful, honest companionship she has with the dog precisely because we—and Miss Barrett—know that Flush thinks and feels. Thus, moments in which she is authentic in the presence of her cocker spaniel do not presuppose that he lacks consciousness; rather, they reflect a state of harmony and communion between the consciousness of two beings, or, in David Herman’s words, the way “human experiences unfold in the context of a wider ecology of minds” (558). Considering Elizabeth’s reliance upon solitude to express the parts of herself she keeps hidden from others, a friend with whom she may be “alone together” is of the greatest value, and the ability to act without dissimulation in front of another can be taken as a marker, if not the marker, of profound friendship. In fact, Emerson declares that “The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust,” and that “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud.” Because Flush can see Miss Barrett completely—in all her infirmity and her sorrow—he can also move her completely: the cocker spaniel brings her such joy that “For a moment she was transformed; she was a nymph and Flush was Pan” (Woolf 26).
If being seen is such a powerful, meaningful experience, feeling invisible, especially within a friendship, is equally impactful. When Mrs. Browning “looked through [Flush] as if he were not there” we are told “That was the cruellest look she had ever given him. It was worse than her cold anger when he bit Mr. Browning in the leg; worse than her sardonic laughter when the door shut upon his paw in Regent’s Park… She looked through him as if he were invisible” (Woolf 98-99). To have his mistress in front of him and yet to remain unseen indicates disconnection. The greatest sorrow a friend can experience is, Flush suggests, to be together but feel alone. This passage, then, indicates a particularly bitter signification of “alone together.” Even though Woolf never uses the expression in this context, her oxymoron does hold such meaning, and it is precisely this sense of the phrase that renders friendships in which people make themselves utterly visible such dangerous emotional ventures, which Flush in the depths of his agony well discovers. Having such potential for ambiguity, the words “alone together” embody the fragility of relationships.
Perhaps because his canine nature is innately open or perhaps because his lack of language means his thoughts remain somewhat inscrutable regardless of how he acts, Flush never dissembles. His sentiments are at times misunderstood but he does not hide any part of himself. Consequently, he does not need solitude to experience freedom as Miss Barrett does, and his authenticity facilitates the development of his friendship with the poet. Though Miss Barrett’s relationship with Mr. Browning demonstrates that genuine interactions are possible among humans, with him she first needs to build intimacy through months of letter-writing and subsequent afternoon encounters: “Miss Barrett’s voice had been forced and unnaturally lively at first. Now it had gained a warmth and an ease that [Flush] had never heard in it before” (Woolf 40). Flush’s nature, however, makes immediate authenticity possible and, from her first moment with the little dog, Elizabeth acts naturally. As such, their relationship may stand as a model of what other interactions can become if they reach their potential for genuine connection.
Once Miss Barrett and Mr. Browning become closer, we understand that they too are able to be not only “together, but “alone together” and Flush’s jealousy of Mr. Browning demonstrates that he understands the difference between the two. Flush is not bothered by Miss Barrett’s other visitors because, presumably, he recognizes that her relationship with them is of a distinct, more distant kind, but the love she feels for Mr. Browning prompts Flush to see him as a threat. Likewise, the cocker spaniel initially perceives Mrs. Browning’s son as an unwelcome competitor for his lady’s affection. Even though Flush himself is still not deceitful, his hostility towards Mr. Browning and the baby makes him unable to see them for who they are, which renders connection between them initially impossible. Thus, unity relies not only upon genuine self-presentation, but also on an accurate perception of others. Finding himself all alone, Flush ultimately realizes that the solution to his troubles is to resist such blinding jealousy and to accept those whom Miss Barrett loves as a part of herself (Woolf 46). Once he does so, harmony is restored to their relationships: “He was with them, not against them, now; their hopes, their wishes, their desires were his… [they] are joined in love” (Woolf 48). Flush eventually develops friendships with both Mr. Browning and with the baby. Thus, presumably, it becomes possible for all four of them to be “alone together.”
We are told that “At Three Mile Cross Flush had mixed impartially with taproom dogs and the Squire’s greyhounds; he had known no difference between the tinker’s dog and himself” (Woolf 20). In London, however, Flush discovers some dogs are esteemed and others scorned based on their breed or lack thereof. As much as the Spaniel Club functions as a commentary on the overvaluing of social class and the arbitrariness of such distinctions, these passages are more than mere satire: they offer an exploration of how an urban, aristocratic socialization may shape one’s—in this case a dog’s—worldview. Such a reading is in agreement with Herman’s proposition that Woolf’s “fictional practice foregrounds the way conscious experiences arise from the interplay between embodied intelligent agents and their surrounding cultural, social, and material environments” (553). Flush’s nature changes because of the environment to which Miss Barrett exposes him, and his realization that there are differences among dogs instigates an inward turn in the little cocker spaniel. For the first time, it seems, Flush wonders about his own identity: “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?” (Woolf 21).
When Flush first comes to Wimpole Street, he looks at the mirror and does not recognize himself: “Suddenly Flush saw staring back at him from a hole in the wall another dog with bright eyes flashing, and tongue lolling! He paused amazed. He advanced in awe” (Woolf 14). After his introduction to the laws of the Spaniel Club, however, he realizes that the animal on the wall is himself: “he examined himself carefully in the looking-glass. Heaven be praised, he was a dog of birth and breeding!” (Woolf 21). As Pauline Macadré points out, the “projection of human feelings onto Flush reaches its peak during the episodes of the looking-glass, which may be read, in the light of Lacan’s mirror-stage theory, as a defining moment in the constitution of the self” (par. 3). Through Flush’s upbringing in London, therefore, the human view of society and of selfhood are passed onto the dog. Flush already has subjectivity before he enters the world of Wimpole Street, but distinguishing himself from others makes him aware of his individuality. Thus, in a way, socialization creates “alone” for Flush. The identity formed through the stratification of dogs is, moreover, a rather artificial one, and, although Flush is never dissimulative, his snobbery constrains his self-expression and his ability to live according to his more genuine instincts. Consequently, Flush’s awareness of his pedigree shapes his behaviour in the streets of London, but, when he is with Miss Barrett, Flush’s knowledge of the Kennel Club appears to have no effect. Just as Miss Barrett lets go of the demands of social decorum when she is alone with Flush, so is he able to forget about the rules of canine society when he is alone with her. In their relationship, such exterior constructs are irrelevant—their friendship is based upon the parts of identity that are more innate and enduring.
In Italy, the rules of the Spaniel Club do not apply, and Flush can at last act like a dog, following his instincts with satisfaction. Likewise, “Mrs. Browning was exploring her new freedom and delighting in the discoveries she made” (Woolf 73) and, whereas in England Flush notices that Miss Barrett’s behaviour changes in front of others, in Italy he makes no such observations. There, both find an environment in which social distinctions are less relevant, and, although “the tie which bound them together was undeniably still binding” (Woolf 78), Flush and Elizabeth feel less of a need for each other: Flush can roam about freely and Mrs. Browning has a fulfilling, healthy life of her own. Thus, in a society where individuals can act without dissimulation in public, being “alone together” with a close friend becomes less important—it is no longer the only available source of genuine connection. Considering that both Elizabeth and Flush are much happier in Florence than they are in London, a careful examination of the politics behind Woolf’s representation of “alone together” highlights the novel’s criticism of the social divides of Victorian England.
Throughout his essay, Emerson reveals an ambivalent view of friendship, wishing simultaneously to maintain his distance from his friends and to unite his soul with theirs so completely as to reach a transcendental unity. He asks: “Why should we desecrate noble and beautiful souls by intruding on them? … Let him be to me a spirit. A message, a thought, a sincerity, a glance from him, I want, but not news, nor pottage. I can get politics, and chat, and neighbourly conveniences from cheaper companions. Should not the society of my friend be to me poetic, pure, universal, and great as nature itself?” (Emerson). Emerson recognizes the difficulty of what he wishes for: “The higher the style we demand of friendship, of course the less easy to establish it with flesh and blood. We walk alone in the world. Friends, such as we desire, are dreams and fables. But a sublime hope cheers ever the faithful heart, that elsewhere, in other regions of the universal power, souls are now acting, enduring, and daring, which can love us, and which we can love.”
Whereas such relations may be hard to attain in the human realm, Woolf’s canine protagonist may be capable of such a feat. Since the kinds of particularities that hamper human relationships have no impact upon his friendship with Elizabeth Barrett, the union that exists between the cocker spaniel and the poet may be inherently of a more transcendental kind. Some distance between Flush and Miss Barrett is inevitable because “The fact was that they could not communicate with words” (Woolf 25) and they perceive the world in utterly different ways. Miss Barrett “with all her poet’s imagination” cannot understand his canine instincts or perceive the smells and sounds only Flush knows, and “Flush was equally at a loss to account for Miss Barrett’s emotions” (Woolf 25). Flush and Elizabeth are, therefore, bound by the constraints of identity, experience, nature, and viewpoint—and yet, they are connected. Woolf writes:
As they gazed at each other each felt: Here am I—and then each felt: But how different! Hers was the pale worn face of an invalid, cut off from air, light, freedom. His was the warm ruddy face of a young animal; instinct with health and energy. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? She might have been—all that; and he—But no. Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other.(15)
Standing on opposite sides of the “wildest gulf,” their minds are ultimately not united by cognition or language but by love.
Perhaps Flush and Elizabeth’s relationship gives rise to a new meaning of “alone together”: though alone in their subjectivities, they are together in a friendship that transcends even the most drastic of differences. This understanding of “alone together” may be particularly apt in describing cross-species friendships—formed despite and across gaps in perspective, communication, and understanding, these relationships are inherently situated at the margins of cognitive and experiential differences. Relations among humans, however, must also, even if to a lesser degree, surpass the divides of identity and perspective if they are to substantiate what Emerson proposes when he says, “I find them, or rather not I, but the Deity in me and in them derides and cancels the thick walls of individual character, relation, age, sex, circumstance, at which he usually connives, and now makes many one.”
The nature of Flush and Elizabeth Barrett’s relationship is complex. Woolf shows that their bond can be frayed. Nonetheless, through all the trouble and turmoil they encounter, their friendship persists. When Flush is kidnapped and placed in torturous conditions, reality itself seems to fade to him: “The whole of that life and its emotions floated away, dissolved, became unreal” (Woolf 55). Once Flush reaches the depths of his anguish, we are told that “If he still held to hope, it was to something nameless and formless; the featureless face of someone he still called ‘Miss Barrett.’ She still existed; all the rest of the world was gone; but she still existed…his last hope—Miss Barrett” (Woolf 62). The memory of his friend sustains Flush through his suffering even in the absence of actual, physical closeness. As such, yet another meaning of “alone together” emerges: even though each individual is physically alone, in friendship they remain ever together. Such a reading may explain why Emerson affirms: “Let the soul be assured that somewhere in the universe it should rejoin its friend, and it would be content and cheerful alone for a thousand years.”
Considering the fragility of relationships and the potential for disconnection inherent in the very words that describe the central friendship of the story, perhaps we need to understand “alone together” in the same way we understand “alone” and “together”: as temporary, changeable states, which are nonetheless real and mark our existence. Nevertheless, Woolf’s oxymoron does, of course, mean more. “Alone together” is different from both “alone” and “together.” “Alone” implies isolation and, to Elizabeth Barrett, sadness, but “alone with” does not—it indicates connection and joy. Moreover, Miss Barrett may spend her afternoons “together” with her visitors or her family, but those interactions are devoid of the truth and authenticity that exist when she is alone and, thus, of the kind of intimacy and communion she finds when she is at last “alone together” with those to whom she is closest. Moreover, the unity denoted by being “alone together” seems to persist in our memory with a unique force. Woolf’s complex pairing of words indicates a connection that can remain long after all that is temporary has faded: when physical proximity is absent and when the boundaries between species, the confines of individuality, and reality itself have been forgotten, the friendship of those who are “alone together” endures.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Friendship.” Essays, First Series, 1841, https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/friendship.html.
Herman, David. “Modernist Life Writing and Nonhuman Lives: Ecologies of Experience in Virginia Woolf’s Flush.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 59, no. 3, 2013, pp. 547-568. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/mfs.2013.0034.
Macadré, Pauline. “‘Solving the Problem of Reality’ in Virginia Woolf’s Flush/Virginia Woolf et Le Chien Flush: «Résoudre Le Problème de La Réalité».” Cahiers Victoriens et Edouardiens: Revue Du Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Victoriennes et Edouardiennes.Woolf, Virginia. Flush: A Biography. Vintage Classics, 2018
Woolf, Virginia. Flush: A Biography. Vintage Classics, 2018.