In G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown short story, The Blast of the Book, he makes two references to a story (presumably allegoric) about a woman who collected valueless things. The references are not explained and from the context it seems that the reader is assumed to be familiar with this story.

The relevant quotes are:

I've often had to wait in your office, till you turned up; and of course I passed the time of day with poor Berridge. He was rather a card. I remember once he said he would like to collect valueless things, as collectors did the silly things they thought valuable. You know the old story about the woman who collected valueless things.

And:

He has nonsense notions of all sorts. About collecting useless things, for instance. Don't you know the story of the woman who bought the two most useless things: an old doctor's brass-plate and a wooden leg?

There seems to be some point being made with the reference to the old story, but without knowing that context it's hard to know what the point is. What is the original story about the woman?

  • 1
    Good question - and welcome to Lit.SE! – Chappo Sep 13 at 6:47
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    Dickens has a surprisingly large number of characters with wooden legs, but I haven't found a reference to a woman who had collected one. – mikado Sep 13 at 22:08
up vote 2 down vote accepted

I have been unable to find any definite story of a parabolic woman who collected valueless things. However a closer reading of the G. K. Chesterton story, especially reading the context of the quotes above, reveal that when the two specific items are mentioned, an old doctor's brass-plate and a wooden leg, they refer to a (male) character in the story who laid a ruse using a discarded doctor's name plate and an artificial leg.

The question thus becomes, If the allegorical woman has been used as a metaphor for a particular individual, male or female, to the extent that she is said to have bought one or more apparently useless (but very specific) items that the same individual had bought, is the story of the woman actually a proverb that has been modified to suit the current situation?

From this context it may be inferred that the question "Do you know the story of the woman who collected ----" with one or more apparently useless items in the blank, is an unusual/old idiom intended to convey that the apparently valueless item in question can, in the right circumstances, be very useful.

The origin of the idiom (if indeed it is one) has not been found.

A possible source for this idea might be a story from the Bible, 2 Kings, Chapter 4. Quoting from the New International Version:

The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.” [...]

Elisha said, “Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars. Don’t ask for just a few. Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.”

She left him and shut the door behind her and her sons. They brought the jars to her and she kept pouring. When all the jars were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another one.”

But he replied, “There is not a jar left.” Then the oil stopped flowing.

She went and told the man of God, and he said, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what is left.”

Here a woman collects seemingly valueless objects (empty jars from her neighbours) and yet they turn out to be her salvation, thanks to a miracle. Given that Father Brown is a Catholic priest, making references to a story from the Bible seems to fit well.

I found this by doing a Google search for do you know the story of the "woman who collected". Many of the search results were actually Father Brown stories, but one that wasn't was this page, which led me to the Bible story.

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