Wow. I loved this book. I apologise now for what might read as a gushy, emotional book review of The Dictionary of Lost Words. Sometimes you come across a book that just pulls you in, stops time and leaves you wanting me. For me this was one of those books.
Book Cover Notes
In 1901, the word ‘bondmaid’ was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.
Motherless and irrepressibly curious, Esme spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of lexicographers are gathering words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary.
Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day, she sees a slip containing the word ‘bondmaid’ flutter to the floor unclaimed.
Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings relating to women’s experiences often go unrecorded. She begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.
As a rule I never read a book more than once, this is a book that will break that rule.
I am struggling to know how to write my book review without gushing like an idiot. I loved this book. I had to slow down my reading near the end as I didn’t want to turn the last page and finish the story. I am already missing sharing my lunch breaks with Esme and faithful Lizzie.
Set in Victorian England, Esme’s life is surrounded by words. She spends her life growing up in The Scriptorium, watching and listening to her father, Dr Murray and the other scholarly men who are tasked with creating the first edition volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary.
‘The Scriptorium felt magical, like everything that ever was and ever could be had been stored within its walls.’
‘I looked around the Scriptorium and imagined it as a genie’s lamp. It was so ordinary on the outside, but on the inside full of wonder. And some things weren’t always what they seemed.
This is an historical fiction story, which is interwoven with real events and real people. I was totally absorbed in the life of a lexicographer. Collating words, researching and validating their meanings and recording them via the printing presses into what we recognise as the dictionary.
Esme shows nothing but respect and patience with these men, even as a young women, during the suffragette movement. She slowly gains the trust of Dr Murray and his team and is rewarded with small errands and tasks. But she struggles to understand some of the decisions made by these men on what should and shouldn’t be included in the dictionary. This is a thought-provoking book, demonstrating the struggle women have had to be heard. Why shouldn’t women’s words be counted, or common slang words overheard everyday in the market be recognised as English words?
I faced Mr Madan again, ‘You are not the arbiter of knowledge, sir. You are its librarian.’ I pushed Women’s Words across his desk. ‘It is not for you to judge the importance of these words, simply to allow others to do so.’
Here are some of the words that sprang to mind as I was reading this book:
- Strength of women
- Injustice and prejudice
- Determination / Needing to be heard
- Fleeting (as in life – it is too short)
- Importance of recording history
- the certainty of change throughout our lives
- Respect / Honour / Loyalty
Having read this as a digital copy, thank you @netgalley, I now realise this has to be in my bookcase as a physical book. That’s the beauty of reading, it can be magical when you find a book that just blows you away and you just want to read it again.
If you only read one book this year, I would recommend this one. I never knew about the Bondmaid, but I do now. And so will you when you read this book.
This book will stay with me for a long time. I think this is going to be one of my all time favourites.
In future, whenever I am asked to recommend ‘just one book’ by family or friends it will be this one. In fact some of them will be gifted a copy this year as I just have to share it 🙂
Where To Buy
About The Author
Writer and researcher Pip Williams was born in London, grew up in Sydney and lives in the Adelaide Hills with her partner and two sons.
Her debut fiction, The Dictionary of Lost Words, was the bestselling new novel of 2020 in Australia. Pip began writing the story when she delved into the history of the Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that the definition of the word ‘bondmaid’ had failed to make its way into the first edition.
Where to find Pip online
Further Book Info:
- Published Date: 8 April 2021 (Paperback)
- Publisher: Chatto & Windus
- Page Count: 432