Woolf in the World: A Pen and a Press of Her Own
In 1930, after Virginia Woolf attended Rudolf Besier’s play, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, she began to reread Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry and letters. Woolf’s fanciful biography of the Brownings, seen through the lens of their cocker spaniel, was published in 1933, with four drawings by Vanessa Bell. The original sketch of The Back Bedroom, on display, shows Elizabeth Barrett languishing in the back bedroom of her father’s house. Pinka, the cocker spaniel that Vita Sackville-West gave Virginia Woolf in 1926, was photographed for the dust jacket and frontispiece of the first edition.
Woolf’s interest in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s reputation as a writer may have been sparked by the biographies of Woolf herself, first published in the early 1930s. This includes the 1932 biography by Winifred Holtby on display. Woolf must have wondered if her own writing would endure or would meet the fate of that of Elizabeth Barrett, whose elopement with Robert Browning seems more memorable to the public than her poetry.
The subtext of Flush is discarded lives from the silent underdog, Flush, to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s maid, Lily Wilson, whose biography is intentionally relegated to a footnote. In response to one of her readers, Miss Batchelder, Woolf suggests that Lily “was the babies version of her real name.” Flush is also a book which links canine hierarchies to the English class system and is part of Woolf’s anti-fascist writing of the 1930s.
Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College