The Duchess and the Jeweller” is a short story by Virginia Woolf following Oliver Bacon, a wealthy English jeweler who, despite his success, feels deeply unsatisfied
The Duchess of Lambourne arrives at Oliver’s jewelry shop to sell a set of pearls, and Oliver questions their authenticity.
Tempted by the promise of a long weekend with his beloved, the duchess’s daughter, Oliver agrees to purchase the pearls without testing them.
As the duchess leaves with her check, Oliver realizes the pearls are likely false, and he cries out to his mother for forgiveness.
Oliver Bacon has an apartment on the top floor of a house that looks out onto Green Park. His windows are decorated and his sideboard equipped in the standard, expected way. His flat is located centrally, and he can see luxury cars on Piccadilly Circus. Oliver arises and has breakfast at 8:00 a.m., and his man-servant brings him his meal. The servant also sets out Oliver’s clothing and opens his letters as he eats. Oliver receives many invitations from important, high-ranking people in society, such as duchesses. After he peruses his invitations, Oliver bathes and eats before reading the newspaper by the fire.
Oliver next speaks to himself, recalling how far he has risen on the socioeconomic ladder. He remembers being young, poor, and dirty, and contrasts his previous appearance to his present one, which is marked by skillfully tailored trousers. He can remember his past so clearly that he can place himself back in his “dark alley,” where, as a boy, he aspired to be successful and wealthy. His early career featured stealing dogs and selling them to rich ladies at a profit. Oliver’s mother lamented his activities, but he continued to earn money by dishonest means, next scamming customers into buying cheap watches for high prices. Thinking of his early escapades, Oliver laughs nostalgically. He recalls how he began selling jewels like diamonds and emeralds, and it is implied that he entered his trade through questionable methods. Oliver takes pleasure in remembering his early days in the jewel trade and how he steadily climbed the ranks of society, acquiring better clothes and means of transportation as time wore on.
- Oliver looks at a picture of his mother on the apartment wall and tells her he has “kept [his] word.” He feels that his success in jewel dealing has fulfilled his mother’s hopes and expectations. Oliver is described as having a long nose, which is associated with his always reaching out and aspiring to more and more. Despite his success in becoming “the richest jeweller in England,” Oliver is not satisfied. He dresses carefully and leaves the flat, bothered by his insatiable ambition, even though his shop is renowned across Europe and America.
- Oliver arrives at the shop, ignoring the four men who work there as he walks in. He prepares to open the store and admires the numerous safes that house this valuable jewel collection. Oliver settles himself at his desk in his distinguished clothing, but his ambition haunts him once more as he remembers his sordid childhood. The Duchess of Lambourne has come to meet with Oliver, but he keeps her waiting for ten minutes. When she is announced, the duchess enters with an air of importance and then is contained by the chair she takes. The two shake hands, with the jeweler bowing to her preeminence. The narrator notes that Oliver and the duchess are engaged in a power struggle but also have a symbiotic relationship.
- When Oliver asks how he can help the duchess, she confesses that she has only one more set of pearls to offer to help buy her out of her gambling debt. Oliver struggles to determine whether the pearls are real or fake, and it seems that he has previously been tricked by her dishonesty. The duchess curses some “villain” who has apparently landed her in this tragic situation, where she claims to have only one item left to buy a future for her daughters. She doesn’t reveal much clear information, so Oliver reads between the lines and tries to understand why the duchess is so distraught based on his previous interactions with her. She appeals to Oliver’s attraction to her daughter Diana, claiming that she is here to see him on her daughter’s behalf. She requests twenty-thousand pounds for her pearls.
- As Oliver begins to question whether he remembers the duchess already trying to sell this particular inheritance, she invites him to attend a family weekend, where he will have a chance to spend time with Diana. Though he was about to ring the bell to have her led from the office, Oliver reconsiders as he sees before him a bucolic scene at the duke and duchess’s country house and himself spending time with Diana. The duchess exclaims the amount she desires again, this time pairing it with the phrase “My honour!” This leads Oliver to think of Diana again, which makes him amenable to preserving the honor of his beloved’s mother. He immediately starts making out a check to the duchess; however, Oliver imagines his mother chastising him, which gives him pause. Returning to the image of Diana in the woods, though, Oliver completes the check and hands it to the duchess.
- After the duchess leaves in a triumphant flourish, Oliver second guesses his decision, still suspecting the pearls were false. He asks his mother for forgiveness, again imagines himself as a boy, and reflects that this will “be a long week-end,” as he must live with the aftermath of his choice while spending time with Diana and her family.