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
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...
(The entire section is 1,683 words.)