The origins of the Oxford English Dictionary have been explored by a number of authors over the years – The Surgeon of Crowthorne, by Simon Winchester (a fabulous read) a non-fiction book and recently a film, possibly being the most famous. Yet, Pip Williams‘s, The Dictionary of Lost Words, though a work of fiction (using an accurate historic setting) could well topple Winchester from this throne.
Lost Words takes the creation of the OED as its raison d’être, but instead of focusing on the primary male actors in the development of the dictionary, it concentrates on the women and the female-centric words that were excised from the original work – for no other reason than they weren’t regarded as having enough significance.
Weaving the fictional story of Esme, the daughter of one of the lexicologists working on the dictionary project, we follow her from early childhood where she finds the word “bondmaid”, a word that refers exclusively to a subordinate female position, discarded on the floor of the “Scriptorium”. This is the place where her father and his colleagues work tirelessly to collect and collate words under the supervision of the real historical figure, Sir James Murray. Esme’s discovery and the word’s exclusion sparks a life-long quest in Esme, to understand the power of words, why and how they shape us and why some words are selected for inclusion in such an important work and others aren’t. I don’t want to say too much more and risk spoiling what unfolds. Needless to say, with a backdrop that includes the rise of the Suffragette movement and World War I, Esme’s professional and personal journey, which have words at their very heart, is riveting, deeply moving, as well as beautifully and lyrically written. On top of that, it’s an erudite exposition on the power of language, how it evolves (or not), and why the (male) gate-keepers are so reluctant to give ground. It’s about power, its imbalance and who is regarded as having a legitimate voice and why and how others are silenced. It’s also about women’s struggles for recognition and agency in a world that was keen to deny them both – even when they were intrinsic to the very project that enabled their exclusion.
I couldn’t stop reading this book, not only is it exquisitely written, but it’s also completely engrossing. Esme’s life and the wonderful characters who enrich it, and the events that become significant and heart-breaking yardsticks are captivating, but so was the story of the English language. While on the one hand, I was turning pages rapidly, I also didn’t want the book to end.
I cannot recommend this glorious book highly enough. It will go down as one of my all-time favourites and that is a big call.
Honestly, I am so proud of Australian women writers. Seriously, I’ve just read about eight magnificent books by them in a row – all completely different and yet all telling wonderful stories in rich, creative and intelligent ways. Thank you. Thank you.