The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
The poppies burgeoning from a small wooden suitcase on the cover of Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words (Affirm Press) beguile the reader into this well-told story of words, Oxford, history and the changing role of women.
Esme’s mother Lily has died and she is being raised by her loving father. He is a lexicographer working on the first Oxford dictionary with real-life historical figure Dr Murray.
Although only a shed in Dr Murray’s back garden, the Scriptorium is a magical Aladdin’s cave of books and words. Pigeonholes are “crammed full of slips, and Da once said that if I read every one, I’d understand the meaning of everything.” Lexicographers and volunteers write the meanings of words and quotes onto postcard-size slips of paper.
As a child, Esme sits under the sorting table while the men work, hoping to find treasure. A forgotten word, Bondmaid, floats into her lap. The word seems special to Esme and she begins collecting lost words and storing them in her friend, servant Lizzie’s wooden suitcase.
As she grows and works in the Scriptorium herself, Esme finds, saves and steals words that would be otherwise lost. She collects “women’s words”, expressions not accepted in the dictionary. Esme is taught that “Some words are more important than others …” but learns to believe that all voices are important.
She is befriended by sophisticated Tilda and Bill who respectively introduce her to the suffragette movement and impregnate her. Her daughter is adopted and taken to South Australia and Esme eventually becomes part of the sisterhood before caring for soldiers injured in World War I. She does errands at the Bodleian Library and finds romantic love at Oxford University Press.
The story, as well as this era in the history of words, is told richly.
The narrative is structured into parts according to year and the progress of the dictionary. Part 1 for example is 1887-1896 batten – distrustful. These parts are encircled by a searing prologue and poignant postscript. Lovely attention to detail continues in the acknowledgements at the end.
There has been an international rights battle over The Dictionary of Lost Words. This novel of love and the wonder of words is of great interest and appeal.
Book trailer of The Dictionary of Lost Words https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3x_3eB9bu1M
The Dictionary of Lost Words can be purchased through Affirm Press or good book sellers.