26 January 2022

Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams book cover

The Dictionary of Lost Words
by Pip Williams is the story of Esme Nicoll, who grows up in a garden shed in Oxford known as the Scrippy, or Scriptorium. Esme's father Harry is one of a team of lexicographers working on the assembly of the first Oxford English Dictionary under Dr Murray's watchful eye. Esme is surrounded by words and growing up without a mother, she often turns to the definitions sent in by volunteers and her dear Aunt Ditte to help her make sense of the world.

Esme is a fictional character and Ditte is a fictionalised version of a woman called Edith Thompson, but the novel is based on real figures from history who worked on the dictionary. It was a mammoth undertaking that began in 1857 with a concept and was finally finished in 1928 with supplements to follow. During this time, many faceless women and volunteers made significant contributions to the project but are unremembered by history. In The Dictionary of Lost Words, Australian author Pip Williams has attempted to right the balance and give us a sense of what the project might have meant to those whose lives centred around it.

Beginning in 1886, The Dictionary of Lost Words is a slow moving coming-of-age story and we follow Esme from a child, through her formative years into an adult. During this time, the suffrage movement grows and Esme befriends an actress. In contrast, I enjoyed the complex relationship between Esme and Lizzie, and Lizzie's status in the world as a bondmaid was both confronting and touching. From Lizzie:
'I clean, I help with the cooking, I set the fires. Everything I do gets eaten or dirtied or burned - at the end of a day there's no proof I've been here at all'. She paused, kneeled down beside me and stroked the embroidery on the edge of my skirt. It hid the repair she'd made when I tore it on the brambles. 'Me needlework will always be here' she said. 'I see this and I feel... like I'll always be here.' Page 41-42
This quiet character study explores class differences, the suffrage movement, and female agency in particular. The scriptorium with it's 1,029 pigeon-holes and the endless flow of quotation slips being received from all over the world was expertly portrayed and I longed to sort the mail with Esme and compose responses to the many questions submitted by members of the public. I enjoyed Esme's determination to collect and record women's words and her enthusiasm for language and stories shines through.
"Words are like stories, don't you think, Mr Sweatman? They change as they are passed from mouth to mouth; their meanings stretch or truncate to fit what needs to be said. The Dictionary can't possibly capture every variation, especially since so many have never been written down." Page 148
If you enjoyed the 2019 film The Professor and the Madman, based on the 1998 book The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester, (also published under the title The Professor and the Madman) then you'll no doubt enjoy this.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams will appeal to historical fiction lovers, booklovers and those with a fondness for words and language. Highly recommended.

My Rating:


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  1. This sounds really good. I asked for the ARC via Edelweiss but it has been very slow to reply lately.

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    1. Thanks Davida, I hope you get your hands on a copy eventually, it's a great read!

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  2. I bought this when it first came out but I haven't actually managed to read it yet. I think I packed it now so it will have to wait until the end of the year.

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    1. Hi Marg, at least you know you'll have a fabulous read to look forward to next year! It's definitely worth the wait.

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  3. This was one of my favorite books of 2021. It was the book that I wanted to read after The Professor and The Madman -- but I had to wait for it to be written!

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    1. Thanks Joy, so glad it was worth the wait and ended up being one of your favourite books last year! What other masterpieces are you waiting on to be written that I should keep a look out for? :-)

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  4. I'm so desperate for an American version of The Rose Code by Kate Quinn, using the information in Code Girls by Liza Mundy, that I'm working on it myself!

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    1. Wow, that sounds amazing! You're definitely living up to the old phrase 'if you can't find what you want to read, write it yourself' or 'write the book you want to read'. I hope the writing process is going well.

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