The Duchess and the Jeweller

by Virginia Woolf

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Woolf’s third-person narrator has limited omniscience, relaying the thoughts of the protagonist, Oliver Bacon, and revealing Oliver’s attitudes toward his mother, his personal history, and the Duchess of Lambourne. The story opens with a relatively objective account of Oliver’s morning routine in his London abode. In the second paragraph, though, the reader hears Oliver speaking to himself, either aloud or as an interior monologue, while reflecting on memories from his early life.

As Oliver thinks about his childhood, “he dismantled himself often and became again a little boy in a dark alley.” Woolf uses the word “dismantled” repeatedly throughout the story to suggest that whenever Oliver mentally returns to his difficult boyhood, he is, in part, deconstructing his current self—a highly successful jeweller with connections to upper-class society—and actually becoming that boy once again. In returning to his early days of scamming rich women by selling them stolen dogs, Oliver looks back on his past with amusement; however, he also remembers his mother exhorting him to “have sense.” The mother’s words trail off with an ellipsis as Oliver transitions to more pleasant memories that make him laugh again. He repeats to himself that “he had done well” in his career.

When Oliver makes his way to the jewelry store, Woolf peppers her prose with numerous examples of figurative language to reveal more insight into Oliver’s attitude toward his success and status. Reflecting on the excitement of gaining notoriety among jewellers, Oliver “still . . . felt it purring down his spine.” This animalistic sensation Oliver experiences at the memory of his own growing importance suggests that his status is crucially important to his sense of self, but also that his vanity is base. When the narrator describes Oliver’s insatiable ambition, she instructs the reader to

Imagine a giant hog in a pasture rich with truffles; after unearthing this truffle and that, still it smells a bigger, a blacker truffle under the ground further off. So Oliver snuffed away always at the rich earth of Mayfair another truffle, a blacker, a bigger further off.

The comparison of Oliver to a “giant hog” is not a flattering one. This metaphorical hog is never satisfied; finding one truffle only leads the hog to want to find another, better truffle. Oliver is, according to Woolf’s hyperbolic phrase, “the greatest jeweller in the whole world,” but he still cannot enjoy success without constantly seeking more. In part, this is ironic because Oliver’s impoverished childhood might lead the reader to assume he would be happy and grateful with his prosperity. On the other hand, his restlessness may be a remnant of his earlier days, when he had to jump from scheme to scheme to make money and scale the socioeconomic ladder.

When Oliver returns to his shop, he blatantly ignores his workers and goes straight to the safes to admire his jewels. He imbues these objects with a great sense of power, equating them with “Tears!” or “Heart’s blood!” and even “Gunpowder!” These metaphorical descriptions of the jewels suggest the excessive emotion Oliver feels in their presence. He thinks about the strength of the diamond in terms of “Gunpowder enough to blow Mayfair—sky high, sky high.” It can be presumed that Oliver aspires to the kind of power he reads into these jewels. Further, when he reflects on this explosive power of the diamonds, Oliver “threw his head back and made a sound like a horse neighing as he said it.” Again, this simile compares Oliver to an animal and suggests that his materialism makes him not quite civilized, despite his astronomical rise in social status.

Oliver’s interaction with the...

(This entire section contains 1322 words.)

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duchess continues to emphasize how much he values rank and respectability. When the duchess arrives for their meeting, Oliver insists on making her wait ten minutes: “The Duchess of Lambourne, daughter of a hundred Earls. . . . She would wait his pleasure.” The narrator repeats the duchess’s title in order to highlight the gap between their positions. The duchess is from a long line of nobility, while Oliver has had to scrape and scheme to achieve his wealth. In order to assert power over her, Oliver will make her wait for him. However, in reflecting on his cufflinks with their “heads of Roman emperors,” Oliver “dismantled himself and became once more the little boy playing marbles in the alley.” He experiences insecurity in this moment, which motivates him to assert superiority over the duchess.

Their power struggle becomes even clearer when the duchess enters the jeweller’s office. He “bent low” to shake her hand, and the narrator then describes their relationship through a series of ironic contrasts: “They were friends, yet enemies; he was master, she was mistress; each cheated the other, each needed the other, each feared the other.” It is paradoxical that the two could be both friends and enemies, but the final line clarifies the reason for this. They are friendly to the extent they can benefit from each other; they are enemies because they have each made themselves vulnerable in the other’s company and could expose each other’s secrets. Interestingly, the middle descriptive phrase—“he was master, she was mistress”—can be read as placing the two on an equal footing, a natural pair.

Their power dynamic continues to ground the second half of the story, as the narrator presents the duchess’s vague dialogue and Oliver’s attempts to read between the lines and create a narrative in his mind. The duchess reveals what she is here to sell: “pearls . . . like the eggs of some heavenly bird.” Again, Woolf incorporates a simile comparing another entity to an animal, though this time with a more positive connotation due to the modifier “heavenly.” Oliver sees these prizes as a godsend but then, seemingly based on his past transactions with the duchess, begins to doubt the validity of the jewels. As soon as she mentions that these pearls are supposedly “the last of them all,” Oliver examines them and wonders, “Real was it, or false? Was she lying again?” All of Oliver’s critical thoughts about the duchess are interior, while he maintains a veneer of propriety in his explicit interactions with her.

While Oliver feels he has the upper hand, the duchess wins this match in their ongoing battle with her knowledge of Oliver’s weak point: his love for her daughter Diana. At a strategic moment, when Oliver is contemplating how the duchess potentially fell into debt, she cries out the name of her three daughters and asserts that she is selling the pearls “for them.” This appeals to Oliver’s vulnerability, as the duchess manipulates his feelings to create sympathy for herself, which means he is less attentive to his normally shrewd business practices. As she proposes a price and Oliver considers, he begins to think of himself at “a dimpling river” with the duchess’s family, including Diana. This leads him to question whether he can “test” the pearls “in the light of the eyes of Diana.” In order to explain Oliver’s decision, Woolf’s phrasing figuratively moves Oliver’s mind from the situation at hand—a potential deal with the duchess—to the imagined pleasure of a weekend in the country with Diana. Despite his hesitation, he writes the check; however, after the duchess leaves the office, he recognizes that the pearls are “the truffle he had routed out of the earth! Rotten at the core.” Returning to the previous comparison of Oliver to a hog, the jeweller realizes that the wealth and status he seeks in this instance will not satisfy him, because it has no real worth. As the story ends, he reflects that “it is to be a long week-end,” because even though he will spend time with his beloved, the experience will be tainted by his belief that he was tricked by the duchess.

Literary Techniques

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Her short fiction did not afford Woolf the large field for experiment and innovation that her novels did, but she usually took at least one important element of the singular style she was developing as a controlling facet. In "The Duchess and the Jeweller," it is her concentration on the nuances of the main character that is the predominant feature. As James Wood points out, one of her aims was "to unwrap consciousness." "Character to the Edwardians," he continues, "was everything that could be described. For Woolf, it was everything that could not be described" (The New Republic, Sept. 29, 1997, p. 35). Thus, her employment of a stream-of-conscious narrative permitted her to literally invade the mind of a character and because the mind operates in response to the immediate present and in terms of the accumulations of sensation into memory, Oliver Bacon, the jeweler, is seen both in the unfolding present and in terms of his history to this point in his life. This enables Woolf to suggest the dimensions of a lifetime while concentrating on a key moment. In doing this, she is satisfying one of the classic definitions of a short story: A moment of revelation that illuminates vast stretches in a character's existence.

At times, Woolf's style—particularly in the dense texture of novels like To the Lighthouse (1927; see separate entry) which uses an elaborate syntax that requires (and rewards) close attention—has presented some problems for readers who are not accustomed to reading carefully and relatively slowly. "The Duchess and the Jeweller" has none of these difficulties, as its pace is quick with no interjections or digressions and its tone sprightly, vivid, even biting. She uses a good deal of terse dialogue and luscious description mixed in an unusual amalgam that keeps the narrative moving briskly, and while much is said directly, almost as much is implied but not hidden. As the Duchess offers her valuable jewels, the action is fluid, the pace rapid, the mood electric:

. . . .But real was it, or false? Was she lying again? Did she dare?

She laid her plump padded finger across her lips. "If the Duke knew . . . she whispered. "Dear Mr. Bacon, a bit of bad luck . . ."

Been gambling again, had she?

"That villain! That sharper!" she hissed.

The man with the chipped cheek bone? A bad'un. And the Duke straight as a poker; with side whiskers; would cut her off, shut her up down there if he knew—-what I know, thought Oliver, and glanced at the safe.

The point-of-view is Bacon's, as he takes on the knowledge of an almost omniscient narrator, but this is still within the larger perspective of the author, who knows and sees Bacon, and his world, and much more as well.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Woolf was raised in relatively affluent circumstances and seemed to most people who met her to have the character of a proper "lady." When she chaired monthly meetings of the Richmond Branch of the Woman's Cooperative Guild—an organization for working-class women—she felt sympathetic to but estranged from the "quiet and phlegmatic" people who attended the lectures she planned, while admiring their "good sense." In an essay in 1930, she remarked "It is not from the ranks of working-class women that the next great poet or novelist will be drawn from," although she also expressed her hope that in the future, people like herself would not meet working- class women as "mistresses or customers" and that "friendship and sympathy would supervene." Her attitudes toward royalty were similarly mixed. Stephen Spender mentions how she was "fascinated" by royalty and Clive Bell remembered her bragging about getting a letter from a Duchess, but she responded to the Abdication crisis by, as Hermione Lee concludes, "playing up to her reputation as a snob and a collector of royal stories." Even as a "left-wing, anti-conservative thinker" (in Lee's words), Woolf was fascinated by the royal family's "immunity" from ordinary life and noted in her diary how the crowds she mingled with around Whitehall on December 10, 1936—the day of the Abdication announcement— seemed to vacillate between sympathy and "sneering contempt." In "The Duchess and the Jeweller," one might trace Woolf's own attitude as it moves along that continuum and also consider her comment on the BBC (in discussing writing) how "Royal words mate with commoners," and her proposal (tongue-in-cheek to a degree) in a 1938 essay that royalty-worship could be replaced now with worship of a panda at the zoo.

1. How old is Oliver Bacon? How can one determine his approximate age in the story?

2. What is the nature of Oliver Bacon's relationship with his mother? Why is it important?

3. How does Woolf use place names to establish a social context?

4. What is the function of the color imagery in the story?

5. Does Woolf give the reader any reason to sympathize with the Duchess?

6. How does Woolf use dialogue to create a psychological mood in the story?

7. In what ways are the attributes of the Duchess still applicable to British royalty?

Social Concerns

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As the daughter of two prototypically Eminent Victorians—Sir Leslie Stephen, the editor of The Dictionary of National Biography and Julia Stephen, a member of the prestigious Pre-Raphaelite circle—Virginia Woolf was raised in what Sandra Gilbert calls a "mausoleum of (a) late Victorian household" (No Man's Land, Vol. III, Letters from the Front, 1994), but the death of her father in 1904 when she was twenty-two dislodged her from the restrictions and expectations of some deeply entrenched social conventions. When she moved into the emerging world of artistic innovation and bohemian inclinations of "loomsbury" she began to fashion her own life as a journalist, essayist, novelist, and teacher, eventually marrying Leonard Woolf (who she described candidly but not critically as a "penniless Jew" in an irrevocable separation from the Hyde Park Gate home where she was raised. The impression of her upbringing, however, remained a significant feature of her writing, as she counterposed in many works the old ways of the English ruling establishment with the transformations of modernist forces, looking toward an uncertain future in which radically different patterns of living might develop. Her short story "The Duchess and the Jeweller" is set during a period of dislocation, when some members of the highest levels of British society—whose royal connections provided the luxury of exceptional privilege and power—have been compelled to deal with people whose occupations and family backgrounds made them previously invisible. The Duchess has to sell her baubles and trinkets to pay gambling debts. The jeweler, who has risen to a position of some wealth and minor power from back-alley poverty, is anxious to move beyond the station he has reached and into the realms of real status. Neither party has any genuine interest in or desire to spend time with the other, but their needs have put them into a dubious alliance that they pretend is based on "friendship."

Since the Duchess is more an emblem of an age and an attitude than a particular person, the rigid proscriptions of the British social code are presented from the point of view of the jeweler. He has reached his current position by wit, guile, and petty thievery, starting from the bottom by "selling stolen dogs to fashionable women in Whitechapel" and then proceeding, in a classic example of enterprise leading to the acquisition of capital and then the multiplication of capital, to become a very successful jewel merchant, "famous in France, famous in Germany, in Austria, in Italy." Now he has a flat in Green Park decorated "with the proper allowance of discrete net" on the windows, and he wears the right clothing "shapely, shining, cut from the best cloth." In spite of his material acquisitions, the jeweler, Oliver Bacon, is "not satisfied yet." "Was he not still a sad man, a dissatisfied man, a man who seeks something that is hidden?" Woolf asks, suggesting that the obeisance of employees ("Hammond and Wicks, stood straight and looked at him, envying him"), the finery he possesses, the riches he has accumulated, do not provide any real satisfaction for a man who has put all of his energies into the pursuit of commercial success and now is beginning to sense that there may be more to life, and perhaps more significantly, that his schemes and strategies may not even be the most interesting utilization of his abilities.

Literary Precedents

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Through most of the nineteenth century, the novel was the dominant fictive genre in the British Isles. Virginia Woolf was one of the earlier practitioners of the short story in England, and her work in "The Duchess and the Jeweller" resembles that of Joseph Conrad in terms of the way in which an individual character is examined in some psychological depth. The social context is closer to that of such continental authors as Guy de Maupassant, while the powerful descriptive passages and dialogue are reminiscent of some of D. H. Lawrence's stories in his first collection, The Prussian Officer and Other Stories (1914).