‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ by Pip Williams

2020, 406 p.

“Have you read The Dictionary of Lost Words?” I asked my daughter-in-law. She hadn’t, she said, although she started it and then abandoned it because she didn’t find it very interesting. I could sympathize: I wasn’t too enamoured of the first eighty or so pages of the book either. But I’m really glad that I persevered, because by the end, I absolutely loved this book.

I am a historian, and I love history, but I am very conscious of when the research behind a book swamps the narrative. I find myself wishing that the author had done their research, and then just put it away out of reach and written into the spaces left in the history. This is exactly what Pip Williams has done here, and her book is all the stronger for it.

The book is based on the real-life compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, which formed the basis of Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne, a book which describes the relationship between James Murray, the Editor of the OED and volunteer Dr. William Chester Minor, incarcerated at Broadmoor Asylum. Pip Williams read that book too, and in her author’s note, she says:

I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I was left with the impression that the Dictionary was a particularly male endeavour. From what I could glean, all the editors were men, most of the assistants were men, most of the volunteers were men and most of the literature, manuals and newspaper articles used as evidence for how words were used, were written by men. Even the delegates of the Oxford University Press- those who held the purse strings- were men

p. 410

Yet there were women involved in the Dictionary, and Pip Williams found them. There were James Murray’s wife Ada and three daughters Hilda, Elsie and Rosfrith who were engaged in the endeavour. Edith Thompson and her sister Elizabeth provided 15,000 quotations – perhaps not as many as Dr Minor, but prolific nonetheless. There was Eleanor Bradley who worked as part of her father’s team of assistants. Then there were the women who sent in quotations for words, or who wrote the texts that counted as ‘evidence’ of a word.

It is among these real-life women that Williams has created her story, finding the gaps and merging fact and fiction. Her fictional character, Esme, is the daughter of one of the lexicographers working in the Scriptorium, a rather-grandly named shed in the grounds of James Murray’s house. Her mother had died, and her father is raising her with the aid of Lizzie, an Irish maid not much older than Esme herself. Esme accompanies her father to the ‘Scrippy’, where she hides under the table as the lexicographers work, and it is from under the table that she notices one of the slips on which the words are written floating down to the floor. It’s the word ‘bondmaid’, and she takes it and hides it in the trunk under Lizzie’s bed onto which she scratches the label ‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’. As she becomes increasingly aware of the class gap between herself and Lizzie, and the gender gap between the men compiling the Dictionary and the women whose work provides the fabric of their middle-class existence, she is drawn to more ‘lost’ and ‘unknowledged’ words. She collects them from Lizzie, from old, toothless Mabel in the market, from actress-turned-suffragette Tilda, and as her experience grows, from her own knowledge of women’s bodies.

At the same time, this fictional Lizzie is living within a real-life historical world including the suffrage movement and World War I. Just as we are shaped by events and trends (for myself: baby-boomer prosperity, a politics in which the Labor Party became a viable political contender, the internet, 9/11, COVID), so too Lizzie’s life is touched by historical events, but Williams deftly keeps these as external, but inexorable influences without letting them overwhelm the narrative. She has her research well under control.

The book is steeped in questions of language and power, and there are some nice little plot tweaks that highlight the importance of language and words. One of the lexicographers speaks to Esme in Esperanto – that quixotic attempt to construct an international language and the Suffragettes adopt the motto of “Deeds, Not Words”. The epilogue, which takes us to a Lexicography conference in Adelaide in 1989 might seem superfluous or tangential but it’s not: the collection of the Kaurna language by ethnographers and missionaries and its restoration, like language reclamation projects in many Indigenous communities, is another form of “lost words”. In this way, Williams takes the process of transcription and compiling out of the little Scriptorium in an Oxford garden over a period seventy-one years to our own present as Australians as we face our own truth about languages that were proscribed and extinguished, only to be found again.

I really enjoyed this book, and didn’t want it to finish.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups, and my own copy as well.

7 responses to “‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ by Pip Williams

  1. I am not a historian, but I too love history, and I too am conscious of the author’s research behind a book sometimes swamping the narrative.

    I’m in awe of people (such as yourself) who have completed a PhD but I don’t think the rise of PhD novel in Australia is necessarily good for our literary culture.

    Any PhD involves serious original research to make the PhD credible, but I am starting to see more and more novels straining under the reins of the PhD research and the academic language that a PhD imposes. I started one recently, from an author whose three previous novels I have really, really liked, and I gave up on it because the author had lost, IMO, her distinctive voice.

    I understand why it happens: authors do these PhDs because a PhD scholarship gives them an income to write with. I’m guessing that more and more people working in publishing also have a PhD which gives them an edge in employment opportunities. Perhaps that is why editors let these books get through when really they need to be rewritten so that the original good idea can resurface.

    I think Pip Williams did get the balance between research and story right, which is why the novel transcended its literary fiction status and became a bestseller.

    • residentjudge

      I agree about the deadening influence of a PhD, or any deep research on a topic. The really hard bit is to put it all aside, and yet stay true to it.

      • Yes, it’s hard. By the time I’d done all my research about Indonesia, and then had to turn it into something suitable for Year 5-8, I really struggled. But I had a good editor!

  2. artandarchitecturemainly

    I have never seen this book in my favourite book shops so I have to ask what sort of audience was The Dictionary of Lost Words directed at? Why did you pick the book up in the first place?

  3. I’ve had my eye on this one for a while now… I hear she has a new book coming out this year as well. The Bookbinder.

  4. I’ve seen the book at Audible/Amazon – now it’s on my wish list and I’ll likely get it in the next couple weeks. It sounds excellent. I majored in history but did the grad work in public administration. Wanted to be a librarian but that dept was closed up that year. Always a history buff. 😊

  5. Yes, I really liked it. And Davida, I’m hoping to read her new book ‘The Bookbinder of Jericho’ within a week or two.

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