Rebecca McCormick. Powered by Blogger.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams - Review

Friday, April 14, 2023

This book was the April choice for my book club and as you can see I had picked it up from the library. I started it right at the end of March because I really wanted to get to it as I had a lot of books planned for April. I am still doing the Marple challenge and the Oxfam challenge that I've been doing so far in 2023, and I had two blog tour books to read. So I thought I'd better get on with this well in advance of our book club meeting on the third Wednesday of the month. 

So this book concerns the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, which really happened at the end of the 19th century, and which was really edited by Dr James Murray, who is a character in this book. His daughters ended up working for the dictionary too, and they are briefly in the book. The main character is Esme, whose father, "Da", is also working on the dictionary. Dr Murray has built a shed in the back garden to work in alongside four other men. The building is known as the Scriptorium, the "Scrippy" for short. It has the Sorting Table in the middle, Dr Murray's desk at one end, and pigeon holes all up the walls. Words arrive from volunteers with their definition and a quotation of the word in use, and are pinned together with other definitions. The book starts in 1888 when Esme is just six years old. 

Her mother Lily is dead, so she spends part of her days sitting under the Sorting Table watching her dad and the other men work. One day a word drifts down to her and she takes it rather than hand it back. She is looked after by Lizzie, one of the Murrays' maids, and she asks to put the word in to Lizzie's trunk. The word is bondmaid - aka a slave girl. The word never makes it into the first volume of the dictionary, A - B, something which Dr Murray discovers later, when a letter alerts him to the fact. This really happened too, but obviously the character of Esme and her stealing of the word is made up. 

Over the years Esme collects more words that have been lost or abandoned, storing them in Lizzie's trunk. She hurts Lizzie when she is still quite little but the two make up. Lizzie is only about eight years older than Esme, and is "fortunate" to have found herself in service. There's a lot in the book about class and about the different privileges that women of different classes enjoy. I will bring this up at book club as I think it's an important part of the book. 

When she is about fourteen, Esme is sent to boarding school in Scotland. This happens because her godmother, Ditte Thompson, recommends it. Ditte is one of the volunteers for the dictionary, although her contributions are rarely mentioned. She was a real person too, and she published a book which was often taught in schools. Esme hates the school and there's implications that she suffered much abuse there, so she comes home. When she leaves school, she works for the dictionary. 

When she's not working she goes with Lizzie to Oxford Covered Market, where she meets some colourful characters including Mabel, who teaches her some of the more colourful words of the English language. Esme becomes fascinated by the words of women, and the working classes, and starts to write them down and keep them in her trunk. She starts to form her own dictionary just by capturing words that the old, white men she works with don't find important enough to include. This is something I'm really passionate about from an accent point of view - there's loads of dialect words that are being lost in the UK alone just because the people who speak them are dying off. I loved this aspect of the book and am looking forward to discussing this part of it. 

As the book proceeds Esme meets an actress, Tilda, who introduces her to women's suffrage and the fight there. Esme is not as militant as Tilda but she does get involved. I liked the aspect of this book where it matched the happenings to the historical actual events too. 

All in all this is a really expansive books and it makes some really important points about women, women's work and lives, class, power, and so on. I thoroughly recommend it! I'm giving it five out of five. 

No comments:

Post a Comment


Blogger news


Most Read