The Duchess and the Jeweller
by Virginia Woolf
The narrative is simple enough. Oliver has a visit from the Duchess who persuades him to buy some pearls. He is dissuaded from checking if the pearls are genuine by her offer of an invitation to her high class home where he will be able to spend the weekend with her daughter with whom he obviously is in love.
Oliver is very aware of his status as ‘nouveau rich’, having begun as a street boy and petty crook before getting into the diamond trade in a way which is only half described by sounds sleazy. Now he is the richest jeweller in England. But he is not content, though he drools over his drawers of jewels like a miser.
The crux of the narrative comes when the Duchess visits him needed money to pay a gambling debt which he husband mustn’t find out about. She is potentially vulnerable to an unscrupulous man, especially if he should find at that the pearls she wants him to buy are fakes. But she has a bargaining counter, her beautiful daughter.
There’s a tension while Oliver decides if he is going to buy the pearls, and this has some sexual overtones. She is not offering herself, however, but herself at one remove, as it were. And Oliver allows himself to be deceived because he is not really buying the pearls but Diana.
The story brings out the unpleasant and dishonest materialism of the English upper class with its ill-gotten gains and sex (indirectly) for sale.
A question which arose at the time Woolf published the story (and she tone done some of the story because of it) was anti-Semitism. Oliver is a Jew (with the ironical surname of Bacon). He is not just a poor boy made himself rich, but a Jew getting admittance into English high society, a stereotypical Jew with a prominent nose and a lot of not quite honestly gained money.
Some critics have seen the story as not anti-Semitic because Oliver is shown as the dupe of the Duchess, and so a victim rather than an exploiter. She knows he knows the pearls are fake but also that he cannot resists her bribe. At the time the story was published, 1938, anti-Semitism was far more strident than it is now, and there was nothing like ‘political correctness’. The myth pedalled was that Jews were a threat because they ‘stuck together’ in business and did not have a sincere allegiance to England – or whichever European country they lived in. They were seen – according to this ideology – as therefore a threat to English tradition and business.
However, the story is also a psychological study of the emotional insecurity of a rags-to-riches man. His continual recall of his mother is a reaching back for the social roots which he has left behind.
I can’t comment at all expertly on Woolf’s anti-Semitism. She seems to have fallen into the prejudiced jargon of the time, but perhaps as she got older repented it. “How I hated marrying a Jew . . . what a snob I was,” she wrote about her husband, Leonard.