In spite of the relative affluence of her family, Virginia Woolf was aware of the difficulties most British subjects faced in terms of earning a living. As a social activist committed to women's suffrage, as a lecturer at Morley College which drew many working-class men and women, and as a partner with her husband at the Hogarth Press, she moved considerably beyond the economic security her birthright offered. The practicality of her declaration in her famous essay "A Room of One's Own" that an artist must have at least 500 pounds a year is an indication of both her lingering sense of entitlement and her awareness of the crippling effects of constant poverty. As she examines the intricate arrangements of the British class system in the early decades of the twentieth century in "The Duchess and the Jeweller" from the perspective of the ambitious arriviste jeweler Oliver Bacon, her semi-sympathy for Bacon's struggle is ultimately overshadowed by her primary concern, the effect that a total focus on wealth and then status has on a person's soul.

The Duchess, as a kind of caricature of totally self-absorbed royalty, is a ludicrously comic figure, a pampered creature in the latter stages of decadence and decline. She is unaware of any form of life other than the prerogatives of her title, and she has lost any vestiges of admirable human qualities. Indeed, it is likely that they were stillborn, and that she is a replica of previous generations corrupted by all of the things Woolf holds in...

(The entire section is 614 words.)