I seem to gravitate toward books about books. Several quite good ones have appeared recently. My latest discovery is about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, the cornerstone of words and their definitions.
Before you nod off at the idea of reading a dictionary, be aware that this novel is about more than words. It’s a love letter to the people who created it, particularly the uncredited women behind the scenes: wives, daughters, maidservants, market stall clerks, suffragettes, and others.
The Dictionary of Lost Words begins in 1893 and centers on Esme Nicoll, child of an Oxford editorial assistant, who each day plays beneath the word sorting table in the Scriptorium, where her father works. Her childhood is grounded in studying the word slips submitted by volunteer contributors, some of which fall from the table and into her hands.
Building the dictionary takes years of painstaking work, years in which Esme grows up in the care of her father, a distant aunt, and Lizzie, a faithful housemaid. Bright but unhappy in school, Esme becomes an assistant in the Scriptorium, sorting mail and running errands. Her encounters with street people lead her to start collecting words the academics consider unsuitable for publication.
Other encounters increase Esme’s vocabulary: an actress who introduces her to the women’s suffrage movement; a couple looking to adopt a child; soldiers of the Great War. These are the bindings of Esme’s private dictionary as well as her special relationships with Lizzie, Aunt Ditte, and two men with whom she has romantic encounters.
The author uses Esme’s adventures with words to build a case on behalf of women treated as second-class citizens. On a deeper level, the novel is about a young woman’s adventure of self-discovery.
Pip Williams has a gift for making us fall in love with her characters. My only disappointment is her introduction of foul words which, understandably, are central to Esme’s secret mission. Nevertheless, The Dictionary of Lost Words stands as both a scholarly and romantic study of language and how words bring meaning to our lives.