Cover of book: The Dictionary of Lost Words

Pip Williams
The Dictionary of Lost Words

At one point early on in this excellent debut novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, set in Oxford 120 years ago, it appears as though Esme may have to choose between getting married and becoming an editor, a choice that doesn’t seem as outdated as it should. Esme actually has no interest in getting married just then, whereas – like her father – she has a natural predilection for words.

Pip Williams has written works of nonfiction and she is a social researcher, and it is that research that is the driving force in this riveting story. The novel centres on a “Scriptorium”, a shed where words for the first Oxford English Dictionary are being scrutinised, researched and cross-referenced. The place sounds like heaven for the word nerd, but the dictionary is taking much longer than anticipated.

Esme is motherless but she has a father who loves her and a very dear, clever godmother. As a child, she spends her days tucked under a desk in the Scriptorium; as she grows older, she takes on responsibilities of her own, including visits to Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, where she is tasked with checking book quotations to ascertain the correct meanings of words.

In order to warrant inclusion in the dictionary, words need to have been written down, so there are thousands of words in general use – belonging to the working class, or women – that are excluded. Privately, Esme starts collecting words that might not meet the criteria. She also falls in with Tilda, an actor and suffragette living an exciting and dangerous new life. From the perspective of maid Lizzie, who could never take the day off to attend a march, suffragettes are “just a lot of rich ladies wanting even more than they already have”. Williams bridges a hundred short years, highlighting that feminism has always been divided – these arguments swing around every International Women’s Day.

As Esme ages and her world grows larger than the Scriptorium, the novel opens up and flexes its considerable muscles. The story bristles with the solidarity, skirmishes and sisterhood of intelligent women from different walks of life at a fascinating time in history. The biggest treat of The Dictionary of Lost Words is the complexity of a central character who is not easy to classify – a listener with an innate understanding of the life-changing importance of valuing people’s words.

Louise Swinn

Affirm, 384pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 11, 2020 as "Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words".

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Reviewer: Louise Swinn

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