Welcome to book club everyone!
This week, I’ll be reviewing the truly original book – The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams with my very smart editor friend Jules Collard.
The Dictionary of Lost Words is Pip William’s first work of fiction. She has previously written a memoir, entitled One Italian Summer, that detailed her move to Italy with her partner Shannon and their children.
The Dictionary of Lost Words was heavily endorsed by Aussie author Thomas Kenneally earlier this year when he said he was certain that a “more original” novel “will not be published this year”.
Although Pip is an Aussie author, the book is headed for worldwide release – it will be published by The Great House which published Mark Twain and Huxley – whose works, ironically, helped shaped the first Oxford Dictionary which is covered in the book.
What’s It About?
Based on true events, the book tells the story of fictional central character Esme Nicolle – a young girl who spends time with her widowed father at his workplace in a corrugated iron shed, grandly called the Scriptorium, affectionately known as ‘the scrippy’, in Oxford. The Scriptorium is where Sir James Murray, the editor of the First Oxford English Dictionary, houses his team of lexicographers who sort and assess the suggested contribution for the dictionary sent to Murray following his worldwide appeal for new words.
One day, a lexicographer drops off a slip of paper. It falls under the table, where she spends her days, and Esme rescues it. She places it inside a small wooden suitcase kept under the bed of the Murrays’ housemaid Lizzie. The word is “bondmaid”, which is exactly what Lizzie is. Lizzie supplies her own entry: “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”. The word is not discovered to be missing until 1901.
Over several years, Esme gathers together a trunkful of words. One of her more ‘colourful’ sources is a stallholder called Mabel from Oxford’s Covered Markets who was described as ‘vulgar’.
My case is like the Dictionary, I thought. Except it’s full of words that no one wants or understands, words that would be lost if I hadn’t found them.
Many years later, Esme‘s gathered words are published into the novel entitled Women’s Words and Their Meanings, after Lizzie passes Esme’s collection on to a compositor at the Press. Esme’s theory that ‘all words are not equal’ is confirmed when she presents a copy of the novel to the editor who takes over Sir James Murray after his death. He rejects the volume as unscholarly and not a ‘topic of importance’.
About Pip Williams
Pip’s first published work was a poem in Dolly magazine entitled ‘Fifteen’. She was 15 years of age at the time.
After pursuing a career in academia, she moved to Italy with her partner Shannon and detailed this journey in a memoir entitled One Italian Summer.
The idea for the book came about after she read The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester – a book about the dictionary. Her reading of the book made her realise that the Oxford English Dictionary may in fact be a gendered text and as a result she posed 2 questions: Do words mean different things to men and women? And if they do, does it mean that some words have been left out of the dictionary.
In all her research one story kept appear to her – in 1901 the Dictionary admitted to losing one word – bondmaid. No-one knows how it was lost or why. So, Pip decided to write a fictional story around a factual one and fill the white spaces of the dictionary with a story that may better explain the impact of gender on our words.
Alex and Jules enjoyed the book. Alex did find the first 1/3 a little hard to read however she had just lost her beloved dog so that could very well explain it. It is a very original idea that provides quite an illuminating insight into the history of our language and the impact gender has had on it.
The girls both gave it a 7.5/10 and recommend it.
You can listen to the podcast via the link below or your favourite podcast app.