Whilst Nature Was Busy Making Cabbages: The Woman in White

51fQFJ1h0fL._SL300_Of all the places to find a euphemism for baffling passivity! This is from Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White:

A mild, a compliant, an unutterably tranquil and harmless old lady, who never by any chance suggested the idea that she had been actually alive since the hour of her birth. Nature has so much to do in this world, and is engaged in generating such a vast variety of co-existent productions, that she must surely be now and then too flurried and confused to distinguish between the different processes that she is carrying on at the same time. Starting from this point of view, it will always remain my private persuasion that Nature was absorbed in making cabbages when Mrs. Vesey was born, and that the good lady suffered the consequences of a vegetable preoccupation in the mind of the Mother of us all.

“Now, Mrs. Vesey,” said Miss Halcombe, looking brighter, sharper, and readier than ever, by contrast with the undemonstrative old lady at her side, “what will you have? A cutlet?”

Mrs. Vesey crossed her dimpled hands on the edge of the table, smiled placidly, and said, “Yes, dear.”

“What is that opposite Mr. Hartright? Boiled chicken, is it not? I thought you liked boiled chicken better than cutlet, Mrs. Vesey?”

Mrs. Vesey took her dimpled hands off the edge of the table and crossed them on her lap instead; nodded contemplatively at the boiled chicken, and said, “Yes, dear.”

“Well, but which will you have, to-day? Shall Mr. Hartright give you some chicken? or shall I give you some cutlet?”

Mrs. Vesey put one of her dimpled hands back again on the edge of the table; hesitated drowsily, and said, “Which you please, dear.”

“Mercy on me! it’s a question for your taste, my good lady, not for mine. Suppose you have a little of both? and suppose you begin with the chicken, because Mr. Hartright looks devoured by anxiety to carve for you.”

Mrs. Vesey put the other dimpled hand back on the edge of the table; brightened dimly one moment; went out again the next; bowed obediently, and said, “If you please, sir.”

I’m listening to the audiobook version of this novel during walks between home and work, and while I do the dishes and that sort of thing. I must confess that when I heard the passage above, the first thing that crossed my mind was how, in certain classes, any request for students to get into groups of three or four results in nothing but inertia and a baffled look, as if I’ve asked them to complete some insuperable task (say, to figure out a proof for Fermat’s last theorem) in the next three minutes or something… Or, for that matter, the individuals who seem so incapable of making a choice or decision that their default method is to play rock, paper, scissors.

So anyway, the passage made me laugh out loud.

(Ah, the bewildered pedestrians of Jochiwon: I wonder what they imagine I’m laughing at, this strange foreigner walking down the street. Probably something nefarious!)

In any case, I’ve known more than a few people born whilst nature was, er, “making cabbages,” obviously not all of them Korean or students. Many a soul has been born under the sign of the Brassicanapa and oleracea alike. I’m grateful to long-gone Mr. Collins for a lovely euphemism that I shall definitely be using, albeit with some caution, in the future.

Wilkie Collins.
Wilkie Collins.

As for the book… well,  you like oddball Victorian serials—a tradition that has died out in the English-speaking world, but which can be approximated by a good rollicking Bollywood movie—you’d probably get a kick out of Collins’ book. Those easily offended by the stereotypes and prejudices of the era be warned: it’s definitely a product of its time. It’s also long, because it’s a serial: Dickens published it in his magazine (All the Year Round) in the UK during 1859-1860, and it ran in Harper’s in America, before it was published as a novel in 1860. But I’m having fun listening to it as I go about my business.

It’s also funny how Collins’ made this big introductory explanation about how he was going to use Multiple! Narrators! with only Subjective! Knowledge! He likens it to a court case, with multiple witnesses, and I gather this was an innovative thing to do in a novel, or at least that’s Collins’ suggestion. This is discussed in the sample of the audiobook up on Youtube, in fact:

There you go!

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