One of the advantages of quieter times is the ability to devote time to reading good books and I have just finished The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams.
On the cover of pretty poppies growing out of a suitcase and scraps of paper with the title of the book, Tom Keneally wrote "There will not be this year a more original novel published. I just know it".
Whether that is true or not, I have no way of telling you but what I can tell you is that this is a book I vastly enjoyed for the way it took a true story and turned it into a well ordered, well-researched and interesting story.
The novel is set mainly in Oxford, some small part of it takes place in Shropshire in the UK and the final part is in Adelaide, Australia.
It is based on a true story – the fascinating account of how the Oxford University Press produced the New English Dictionary. The whole complex operation was run by Sir James Murray who was helped not only by his 11 children but a " family" of keen workers who collected and tabulated the words and their meanings and we are introduced to all of these characters in the book.
This is the true basis of the story and our fictional heroine is introduced to us at a very young age as the daughter of Harry Nicoll, one of the workers on this project. Her mother died when Esme was very young and Harry is bringing up Esme by himself with the help of a wonderful cook and a maid called Lizzie.
As a child she plays in the Scriptorium, the "Scrippy" as it is called, which is basically a garden shed in Oxford where all the words are collected and collated and their meanings explained and recorded before being passed on to the press to be printed in the dictionary. Esme often hid under the table where at one moment she picks up one of the scraps of paper which fell to the floor with the word 'Bondmaid" on it. "Bonded for life by love, devotion or obligation" was the explanation given to this word. She carefully places this scrap of paper with the word on it in a box and this begins her fascination with the words and in particular some words used by women.
The story follows Esme growth, her intelligence and thirst for knowledge, her discovery of the theatre and the suffragette movement, her relationship with Lizzie, her godmother and eventually the man who she will marry.
She is a woman of the time, and the challenges to her education, her life and her status are all there for us to ponder and question.
The story highlights some of the major historical movements of the early 1900s, men being conscripted to war, the suffragette movement and women's emancipation. All these matters are carefully woven into Esme's little secret which is her collection of Lost words – the collection of words that are from women in the market or ordinary folk who use the words in their spoken language. What happens to the little box and the words stored in there are the central cornerstone which binds this delightful and moving story together and brings us back half way across the world to Adelaide Australia.
Author Pip Williams has managed to introduce all these places to us in the book perhaps reflecting a little of her own life having been born in Sydney, grown up in Sydney and now living in Adelaide. She has published a few books but this is her first novel and delightful and warming it is. She has taken the story of the Oxford Dictionary and found the missing words from within it and woven a story of women's lives which has captured our imagination but also shown us the sheer commitment and hard work of people who have worked on giving us the Oxford English Dictionary.
I absolutely loved this book - so much so I wrote to Pip to tell her so! I had the pleasure of attending a "webinar" with her and Thomas Keneally put on by the publishers and a bookshop. It was fascinating to hear about the background to their latest novels of historical fiction.
What a great idea to share a book review. I will follow your lead.