Title: The Dictionary of Lost Words
Author: Pip Williams
Published: March 31st 2020
Publisher: Affirm Press
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Rating: 3 stars
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.
‘A name must mean something to be in the Dictionary.’
Adelaide Hills resident Pip Williams released her debut fictional title, The Dictionary of Lost Words in March 2020. Published by Affirm Press, this novel gained plenty of pre release hype, with early readers taken in by unique history of the formation of one of our most staple items in the English language, the Oxford Dictionary.
The Dictionary of Lost Words introduces the central character of Esme, a child raised by her father, who consequently spends hours at the Scriptorium, a garden shed come office where a team of workers are collecting the words required to establish the first Oxford English Dictionary. While Esme observes the process carefully, remaining unobtrusive, she begins collecting lost and forgotten word slips. Esme knows the importance of these abandoned words from the Dictionary men. Esme resolves to ensure that these important words are not lost or buried. So begins the formation of the pivotal ‘Dictionary of Lost Words’, a book that holds just as much importance as the Oxford English Dictionary in Esme’s eyes. The Dictionary of Lost Words is a story that exposes the weight of words and above all it is a celebration of the English language.
Topping the ‘hot list’ at the renowned Frankfurt Book Fair prior to its official publication, The Dictionary of Lost Words has won plenty of readers over since its release. With a number of fellow booklover friends rating Pip Williams’ book very highly, I was really looking forward to immersing myself in this novel. With an exquisite cover, a fascinating premise, an interesting historical baseline and a whole host of positive reviews to match, I couldn’t wait to finally read this title. Unfortunately this one was not a winner for me.
I will start on a positive note and state that I really thought I was going to like The Dictionary of Lost Words very much. The novel is set to a firm chronological historical timeline that branches from 1886 through to 1989, which is quite an expansive time period. I will say that although The Dictionary of Lost Words is ambitious in scope, Pip Williams managed to pull off the era focus of her novel very well. I really enjoyed the references to key historical events and influences of the time. Pip Williams highlights women’s rights, the influence of the Great War, societal trends, class issues, family arrangements, educational rights and political issues. There is also a strong glimpse into the very interesting world of lexicographers. The overarching theme of written words, language and phrases was also utilised very well by the author.
Esme is the lead who dictates a great deal of the action in The Dictionary of Lost Words. I did admire her enterprising actions, ingenious attitude and fighting spirit. Esme is a fictional creation by the author, but there are a number of key players in this novel who are based on real life figures. For some reason I didn’t engage with the narrative or the characters as much as I had hoped to. It was often a laborious process getting through this book and I’m not entirely sure why this was the case. My interest increased a touch towards the latter stages of the novel, which helped to redeem The Dictionary of Lost Words. I’m not sure everything aligned as well as it could have and I found it quite dry in places. However, with any less than satisfactory experience I have with a book, I will often encourage readers to still approach this novel with an open mind, you may find you are with the majority and The Dictionary of Lost Words may be a story you come to love.
To learn more about the author of The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Wiliams, visit here.
The Dictionary of Lost Words is book #121 of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge