"In 1901, the word bondmaid was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.
Motherless and irrepressibly curious, Esme spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of lexicographers are gathering words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary.
Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day, she sees a slip containing the word bondmaid flutter to the floor unclaimed. Esme seizes the word and hides it in an old wooden trunk that belongs to her friend, Lizzie, a young servant in the big house. Esme begins to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men. They help her make sense of the world.
Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings relating to women’s experiences often go unrecorded. She begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.
Set when the women’s suffrage movement was at its height and the Great War loomed, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. It’s a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape our experience of the world."
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British-Australian. Born in London, grew up in Sydney, now lives in the Adelaide Hills. Coauthor of a nonfiction title, and author of a successful memoir (One Italian Summer). She was inspired to write this, her first novel, by reading Simon Winchester's 1998 book The Surgeon of Crowthorne (later retitled The Professor and The Madman) about the creation of the Oxford English dictionary. Although women played a significant role in that exercise (Sir James Murray's daughters, for starters), they never received much credit. (Sound familiar?) Ms Williams seeks redress, by which I don't mean changing her dress, I mean…you know what I mean.
Esme is a relentlessly curious young girl, who lives near Oxford with her widowed father, one of the lexicographers assisting Mr Murray with the dictionary project while mourning the death of her mother. The lads work in a converted garden shed called the "Scriptorium." (Men and their sheds, eh?) Words come in from all over the country on little bits of paper with quotations attached that help define them. Murray and his gang decide what's to be printed and get them all in order first. Esme lurks around under the table picking up discarded slips of paper with words on them, then squirrels them away in her housemaid's trunk, having scratched 'Dictionary of Lost Words' on the outside. In 1901, someone works out the word 'bondmaid' is missing from the dictionary. No prizes for guessing where it, and many others, are. In between times, Esme grows up, gets periods, gets physically abused in a boarding school in Scotland (standard operating procedure at the time), comes back, gets pregnant, gives the kid up for adoption, works for Mr Murray, who bears a striking resemblance to Dumbledore, yada, yada, the First World War, Rupert Brooke's poetry, yada, yada, the suffragettes. Our gal gets dead, aged 46, soon after the dictionary is complete in 1928. She's hit by a bus on Westminster Bridge during a suffragette rally. Her aunt sends the 'Dictionary of Lost Words' trunk to Esme's biological child in Adelaide (see footnote 1), who ends up an eminent professor of etymology, as distinct from entomology.
Oxfordshire c1880-1920, then Adelaide 1928, and 1989
Even an old white guy like me can tell Esme is a cipher for the untapped potential of women. The lexicographers are the geeks of their day. Esme's old man is well meaning, if ill suited to raising a girl. (What man is, right?) Her aunt, a go-getter much smarter than most of the blokes around her, is based, and named, after a real person, who actually did a lot of the stuff Ms Williams has her doing in the book. Ditto many other real historical characters she slots in.
Ms Williams does not make the mistake of attempting to emulate the writing style of the time, preferring to use the content to evoke the era. She is, however, guilty of imposing, or seeking to impose, contemporary mores and attitudes on people living in different times. Plenty of writers do, of course, which is my major gripe about historical fiction (see footnote 2).
Polished effort likely to be more highly rated by female readers than male ones, this male at least. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
1. I'm stuck by how often literary types seem to gravitate to Adelaide. Because it's a good place to have lunch, I suppose.
2. The word 'bondmaid' has a Handmaid's Tale vibe about it that I, for one, found heavy handed. (Sorry)
The Dictionary of Lost Words
The words transport the reader to a different era - most writers are more than capable of achieving this but Pip Williams is up there with the greatest! Her story is told with such compassion, such beauty of mind and spirit. This is a book I highly recommend - so special.