Source: Review copy
Publication: 8 April 2021 from Chatto & Windus
My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy for review
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.
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.
This is a book for every etymologist and bibliophile to love. A book about words and the impact they have; about their power to move and change minds, to define an era and to highlight how words are so important when it comes to defining women’s contributions to society.
Beautifully researched, Pip Williams has taken real people and events and crafted behind them the story of Esme Nicoll, whose mother Lily died when Esme was born. Set in 1887, Esme’s da, Henry, works for Dr James Murray, the compiler of the Oxford English Dictionary. With other lexicographers, he sits every workday in an old iron shed in Murray’s back garden in Oxford. The shed is lined with pigeonholes. This is the Scriptorium and every day Henry takes Esme there to work with him and she sits under the sorting table as her da and the other men look at scraps of paper The words, their meanings and their use in quotes came on slips of paper with individual words and their meanings on them and argue about whether or not they should be included in the dictionary.
This is the start of Esme’s love affair with words. As the word ‘bondmaid’ slips off the end of the table, she catches it and saves it, later storing it in a chest owned by Lizzie, their housemaid. Letting bondmaid slip out of the dictionary is a mistake, but as Lizzie comes to understand more about the arguments and which words are being excluded, she realises that there’s a whole lot of perspective being missed out and she begins to keep the discarded words in that same chest.
Lizzie is the closest thing that Esme has to a friend and a mother, even though their ages are separated by only 8 years, and understanding what Lizzie’s life is like helps to inform Esme’s understanding of how the language of the working class is being deliberately excluded from this dictionary. Indeed, after she queries the decisions once too often, Esme is finally banished from the Scriptorium.
She is prompted to start compiling her own collection of words; some from the discarded paper scraps of the Scriptorium; others from the people that Esme meets through Lizzie. These are words that are in common usage but often not written down, because writing skills are still not a common factor in the poor and some of these words are coarser than the gentlemen of the OED would think seemly to include. So Esme compiles her own dictionary; one that reflects the experience of the working class. Doing so is an enlightening experience for her as she understands that women’s experience especially is going unrecognised and unrecorded and she sets out to redress the male bias she has found in the ‘scrippy’.
Though the pace of this novel is slow for the first third or so, as Pip Williams sets the scene, it also feels right for a book that is all about the exploration of words and language. Pip Williams writes beautifully and the love of words and language is suffused through this book. Set alongside the suffragette movement, Esme’s understanding of the way that language defines and subjugates women is a revelation.
Williams intertwines this journey of discovery with the contrast between Esme’s life, which though not poverty stricken is nevertheless full of anxiety and depression and the housemaid Lizzie’s existence. For Lizzie is a woman who works morning, noon and night in service and who would no more think of joining the suffragettes than running away to find a life of her own. A marvellous cast of characters, some benign, others less so, have their own impact of Esme’s life.
There’s a love story here too, as World War 1 looms and Esme’s friendship with Gareth, an OED typesetter is blossoming. Esme will find that even in the midst of war and tragedy language can still play an important part in reaching people.
Verdict: A beautiful, fascinating and engaging story about language, loss and love that should appeal to everyone who loves words. Esme’s life is by no means easy and there’s heartbreak here too, but the author has a lot to say about the importance of words and that’s well worth enduring the heartbreak.
Pip Williams, writer and researcher, was born in London, grew up in Sydney and lives in the Adelaide Hills with her partner and two sons. Her debut fiction, The Dictionary of Lost Words, was the bestselling new novel of 2020 in Australia. Pip began writing the story when she delved into the history of the Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that the definition of the word ‘bondmaid’ had failed to make its way into the first edition.