This debut novel by South Australian writer Pip Williams has been published to critical acclaim, including a commendation from Thomas Keneally. It is a story about real people and real events (and you can read more about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary in the acclaimed nonfiction work by Simon Winchester, The Surgeon of Crowthorne). The world of the scriptorium, where the Oxford English Dictionary was being compiled, is told through the eyes of Esme, a young girl growing up in the scriptorium where her father is working. Motherless Esme realises very early on that some words were considered more important than others and those that were not considered important were women’s words. She takes it upon herself to collect women’s words over her lifetime. The novel takes place during an extraordinary time of change, the new century dawns, there is the start of the women’s suffragette movement, and the war years of World War 1. We follow Esme’s life as she grows up through this period of change and how she is fascinated with words, especially the words that are not allowed into the Oxford English Dictionary.
There is also a YouTube trailer, opens a new window which tells you about the book.
One of the things I really liked about this novel was Esme’s relationship with the housemaid Lizzie. The beginning of the story sees Esme as a very young child spending her days under the table where the lexicographers, including her father, work. One day a slip of paper is dropped and it falls under the table. Esme rescues it and places it inside a small wooden suitcase kept under Lizzie’s bed. The word is 'bondmaid' which is exactly what Lizzie is. And it is Lizzie who supplies the meaning “Bonded for life by love, devotion or obligation. I’ve been a bondmaid to you since you were small, Essymay, and I’ve been glad for every day of it”. The word is not discovered to be missing until 1901. Lizzie and Esme share a lifetime relationship, with Lizzie supporting Esme in finding more common women’s words and their meaning, through visits to the marketplace and with working women.
I really enjoyed a book that puts women back into history and talks about these momentous times through the life of an uncommon woman of the times. A woman who does question the status quo. Esme finally publishes her book of Women’s Words and Their Meaning in a wonderful moment which I will not spoil for you.
Williams has written an emotional story that covers 100 years with Esme at its centre. The factual historic figures are interweaved with Esme’s story seamlessly, which I was impressed with for a debut novel. Pip Williams has written a memoir previously, One Italian Summer: Across the world and back in search of the good life (2017) which is about her Italian life change over the course of one summer, so her writing skills are honed. In The Dictionary of Lost Words, her storytelling skills are also on show and she does not hesitate to put her characters in challenging circumstances where the reader is emotionally engaged to turn the page and find out just what happens. The historical factual component of the story also engages our intellect and for me, makes me want to read more about the scriptorium and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Published by Affirm Press they have also published Book Club questions, opens a new window to support book clubs who want to discuss the book. Better Reading has also interviewed Pip Williams and you can read her interview here, opens a new window.
Totally recommended read.
Jane Cowell, CEO Yarra Plenty Regional Library