While I was still reading The Dictionary of Lost Words, I tried to explain the story to a friend. I started to cry – I can’t remember a novel so original, so perfectly executed, so wonderful that the very act of describing it brought me to tears.
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. Lizzie herself adds to it: “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”.
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.
This is a fictional story threaded into the real events around the creation of the Oxford Dictionary. All the lexicographers, editors and supporters of the dictionary were men, so it’s no surprise that the finished dictionary was biased towards the experience of men. 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.
Meticulously researched and exquisitely written, Pip Williams has delivered one of the most remarkable debuts I’ve ever read. There was a lot of hype around this novel: it was the hottest title at the 2019 Frankfurt Book Fair so I approached reading it with caution. That lasted about a page. I was quickly swept up into this delicious, clever, deeply moving read. Esme is a brilliant character, intelligent, thoughtful and wise, fighting to give women’s words their proper place in the English language.
This is a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape our experience of the world. I could go on and on, but I’ll cry again. Suffice to say, The Dictionary of Lost Words is extraordinary.