the imaginative conservative logo


In the presence of Sir William Bradshaw one finds one’s self in an intimidating and menacing milieu; he is the epitome of a world in which Septimus can find no meaning and in which he becomes its helpless victim. Bradshaw, “this man being the ghostly helper, the priest of science,” is the inescapable nullity and way to death. His very presence is fraught with all the trappings of negation. On the surface his diagnosis of things is adroit; it is the product both of his power to judge absolutely and to decide human fate, and of his self-certainty in categorizing the state of Septimus’s “case.” Even in his own state of confusion, Septimus intuits the negatives that are ultimately at the core of Bradshaw’s diagnostic power. Indeed, even Sir William’s medical notes, written in pencil on pink cards, are confirmations of his remorseless “verdicts.” “‘Try to think as little about yourself as possible,’” he advises the young man—but, “Really, he was not fit to be about.” Bradshaw has full trust in his findings: “‘Trust everything to me,’” he says, knowing as he does that his authority is unchallengeable and that no dissension can be booked, such is his absolute confidence in treating a patient’s illness: “order rest in bed; rest in solitude; silence and rest; rest without friends, without books, without messages.”

His professional success, which he has gained by “sheer ability” has grown by leaps and bounds, and he is honored by those who admire his reputation, and who can also afford his “very large fee.” In the meantime, when Sir William’s own wife waits for him to conclude one of his distant visits to the rich and affluent, she thinks of “the wall of gold, mounting minute by minute,” which her husband is steadily building “in dealing with nerve cases,” as he ministers to his patients far and wide. And he savors his power over life, makes his unilateral judgments and decisions, as he carefully doles out his time (“[t]o his patients he gave three-quarters of an hour”). His general attitude is gallant, condescending, and always self-satisfying in knowing the worth of his medical judgments and decisions in the eyes of his peers.

As Sir William prospered, he knew, too, that he “made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalized despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views.” He knew only too well that his paramount function was to protect the citizenry from those who would enfeeble a civic society’s resolve to press on with its material fortunes and identity; that he would be thanked and rewarded “for insisting that these prophetic Christs and Christesses [such as Septimus Warren Smith], who prophesied the end of the world, or the advent of God, should drink milk in bed, as Sir William ordered.”

Sir William does not personify a metaphysics of evil that one encounters, say, in some of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s and Joseph Conrad’s villains, who essentialize abstract and extra-worldly essences of a demonism that places them somewhere between heaven and hell.[13] His Goddess was one of “proportion, divine proportion,” whom he evokes again and again; this is the Goddess who conveys Sir William’s public persona and mystifies his accomplishments. It is, so to speak, his calling card as a physician who has profound insight and helps to undo the blunders of general practitioners like Dr. Holmes.

But as Woolf’s narrative makes unmistakably clear, there is another Goddess, “Conversion is her name,” whom he worships. “Less smiling, more formidable,” this sister Goddess, like the prince of this world, is found everywhere, and is “even now engaged in dashing down shrines, smashing idols, and setting up in their place her own stern countenance.” It is this Goddess of Conversion, as Rezia “divines,” who not only dwells in Sir William’s heart “under some plausible disguise; some venerable name; love, duty, self-sacrifice,” but also who best defines and dominates his innermost motives: to vanquish human wills and to nourish his imperial self. The “great,” self-serving doctor, in fact, though he outwardly professes belief in the classical virtue of measure, places his full and final faith in a totalitarian temper, in that other “Goddess” whose “lust is to override opposition, to stamp indelibly in the sanctuaries of others the image of herself.”

His goal is to embrace and to advance unilaterally the diverse agencies of power so as to make his patients (and his own wife) capitulate to the sovereignty of his will. He is, as his very gestures and declarations demonstrate, the “master of his own actions,” as he “swooped; he devoured. He shut people up.” The power to control others’ fate, to make his word absolute, to silence all opposition, to dominate human life: That was his constant goal. The pursuit of power best describes his creed of faith and his raison d’être. Both Rezia and Septimus, whatever their anguish and the degree of their resentment, recognize Sir William’s power to judge and to prevail.

It is precisely his insatiable appetite for the acquisition of power and dominion that furnishes Sir William with the trappings of wealth, fame, esteem, influence, dominion. It is not so much, then, that he is a representative of evil ends as that he is also the incarnation of raw power to manipulate lives and shape destiny, and as such to judge and to overrule others and to apportion punishment to the weak, the infirm, the debile, even as he simultaneously championed proportion as a way of life. Insidiously, meretriciously, he maneuvers to attain his vision of power within his own profession as a special healer of the bodies and the minds of combatants who have somehow survived military carnages only to be continuously haunted by “the images of war.”

In word and attitude, Sir William is the archetype of a scientific elite as distinguished from other intellectual and social groupings; in this, he manifests a modern state of mind empowered by its specialized view of the modern conditions and realities of material existence. His diagnosis of and his prescription for Septimus’s rehabilitation are in the end barren of understanding the depth of the disease of disenchantment that the soldier-poet Wilfred Owen designated as the “undone years” and “the hopelessness” that the combatants experienced.

Woolf employs a very fitting concrete symbol of Sir William’s success and affluence, his grey motor car parked in front of his house on Harley Street: “low, powerful, grey with plain initials interlocked on the panel.” He often uses this motor car to travel sixty miles or more into the country to visit wealthy patients as his “work grew and grew.” To match its “sober suavity,” “grey furs, silver grey rugs were heaped in it, to keep Lady Bradshaw warm while she waited” for her husband to parcel out his “infallible” medical advice. Seated within the motor car, “she felt wedged on a calm ocean, where only spice winds blow,” thinking at this point of the narrative of their marriage, with her only child, “a boy doing well at Eton,” and how “respected, admired, envied” she was, “with scarcely anything left to wish for, though she regretted her stoutness.”

Sir William has provided his family with material satisfaction; “no longer young,” “with his grey hair,” he had been knighted and has acquired a look of distinction, “a heavy look, a weary look,” “the responsibilities and privileges of his profession [being] so onerous.” Almost predictably, following consultation with Sir William, who informs Mrs. Warren Smith that her husband must go into one “of my homes,” where he will be taught to rest, Septimus’s condition is precarious. We see him next, having returned to his lodgings, “lying on the sofa of the sitting-room,” as he has become suddenly more “excited.” “That man, his friend who was killed, Evans, had come, he said. He was singing behind the screen.” With tears now running down his cheeks, Septimus is radically incoherent: “he would cry that he was falling down, down into the flames.”

At this pivotal juncture, Dr. Holmes again appears on the scene; he is, for Septimus, “the brute with the blood-red nostrils,” as on an earlier occasion Septimus pictured him in his mind: “Once you stumble, Septimus wrote on the back of a card, human nature is on you.” Indeed, Septimus never gets over the morbid feeling that both Holmes and Bradshaw are pursuing him as agents of “human cruelty.” They were his judges who “saw nothing clear, yet ruled, yet inflicted.” The scene here has an electrical intensity and marks the moment when Rezia and Septimus are to be separated. As she prepares to pack Septimus’s things to take with him to one of Bradshaw’s “homes,” she hears voices from below and then goes downstairs, thinking perhaps that it was Dr. Holmes who had come. “Septimus could hear her talking to Holmes on the staircase. ‘My dear lady, I have come as a friend,’ Holmes was saying.” Rezia, who intuits danger to her husband in the bedroom, tries to bar his way, but “a powerfully built” Holmes puts her aside.

Septimus is in a state of frenzy, fearing as he does that Holmes is about to burst open the door and to deliver a fearsome “verdict.” Thoughts of how to bring an end to his life surge up in him:—with Mrs. Filmer’s “nice clean bread knife”? or by gas fire? or with a razor? “But it was too late now. Holmes was coming.” For Septimus there “remained only the window, the large Bloomsbury-lodging house window…. Holmes was at the door. ‘I’ll give it to you!’ he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings.” Agitation, shock, “thumping and whispering,” “running up and down stairs” fill this grim scene, concluding with Dr. Holmes sedating Rezia so that she will not have to see her husband’s “horribly mangled body.” The “sweet” potion lulls Rezia into a strange, uneasy slumber, as she finally beholds the shadow of Holmes’s “body standing dark against the window. So that was Dr. Holmes.”

At Clarissa Dalloway’s party that same evening, Sir William and Lady Bradshaw, who are among the invited guests, pass along, rather perfunctorily, to Clarissa the news of Septimus’s suicide, which she now envisions in harrowing detail: “He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it.’” For Clarissa, “her party,” for which she has been meticulously preparing, is of major personal importance, to be attended by great personages, “old friends,” dignitaries, Ladies and Gentlemen, and, yes, the Prime Minister himself—“this majesty passing; this symbol of what they all stood for, English society.” His presence, obviously, incarnates not only the success of the party, but of Clarissa as the paragon hostess.

Sir William’s presence, in sharp contrast—“There were the Bradshaws, whom she disliked.”—brings in a note of terror. Although Clarissa recognizes his fame, “[a] man absolutely at the head of his profession, very powerful, rather worn,” she nonetheless would not want to fall into his clutches: “No; not that man.” At one time, in fact, she had gone to him for a consultation. “But heavens—what a relief to get out to the street again!” Her own earlier experience with Sir William now connects her to Septimus, and also confirms those same fears that the Smiths were to express in their dealings with Sir William. Clarissa cannot put her finger on what exactly she disliked in him; her husband, Richard, also shares this dislike of Bradshaw, for he himself “‘didn’t like his taste, didn’t like his smell.’”

In any event, the Bradshaws are, for Clarissa, nocturnal conduits of terrible news. “Oh! Thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.” Sir William is for her, then, a dark and threatening force, and the sight of him “curl[s] her up.” Yes, she thinks, he is an “extraordinarily able” doctor, but “yet to her obscurely evil, without sex or lust, extremely polite to women, but capable of some indescribable outrage—forcing your soul, that was it.” Sir William’s news of Septimus killing himself strikes fear in her—“her dress flamed, her body burnt.” And as she dwells on the details of Septimus’s suicide, the news of which darkens and tarnishes for her the “success” of her party and interjects the grim scene of death: “It was her punishment to see sink and disappear here a man, there a woman, in this profound darkness.”

In Septimus, Clarissa not only sees her own mortality but also feels the fleetingness and fragility of human existence: “Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the center which, mystically, evaded them.” Indeed, though death signified for her that “one was alone,” it also signified that there “was an embrace in death.” The mood of Mrs. Dalloway is pensive and even elegiac in reflection, invariably touching on the everlasting questions—sin, guilt, evil, death, redemption.

Virginia Woolf’s concentration on evil in this novel is especially intensive as she demonstrates in her graphic portrayal of Sir William Bradshaw. Even in the last three pages of the novel it is Bradshaw who is startlingly there; it is as if Mrs. Woolf cannot ignore, or dismiss, or forget, or escape him, such is the elemental power of his presence as an “enemy”: “this distinguished-looking man and his rather common-looking wife…what could one know about people like that?” For Richard Dalloway, who is casually observing the Bradshaws, “they’re damnable humbugs.” For Virginia Woolf, however, William Bradshaw is far more than simply a humbug, a deceiver, a fraud, or a sham. He is, as E.M. Forster emphatically remarks in Abinger Harvest (1936), “uninterruptedly and embracingly evil.”[14] Clearly, Sir William Bradshaw is Woolf’s quintessential metaphor for evil.

To be sure, Mrs. Dalloway is a novel about what Virginia Woolf has termed in one of her celebrated essays, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1924), “the spirit we live by, life itself.”[15] In the more immediate context of the novel’s story line, it is about “this hot June day,” “this moment in June,” with its “myriad impressions.” In a deeply metaphysical sense, however, it is a novel that transports us into the kingdom of enmity and that, simultaneously, contemplates the horror of evil: its sensations, motions, forms, enticements, consequences; its dynamic of oppressive brutality and violence and death. Its contemplation of evil makes Mrs. Dalloway a modern classic that speaks in a universal language and has universal meaning, known to and felt by humankind in all countries and climes.

This is the second essay in a three-part series; the first essay may be found here, and the second here. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer 2004).


[13] See George A. Panichas, “Chapter Three: Satanism,” The Burden of Vision: Dostoevsky’s Spiritual Art (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1977), 89–112; and also his “Moral Warfare in Joseph Conrad’s Victory,Modern Age: A Quarterly Review (Summer 1999), 240–251.

[14] “The Early Novels of Virginia Woolf” (New York, 1955), 108.

[15] Collected Essays, Vol. I (New York, 1967), 319–337.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Leave a Reply