NB’s Recommendation for the month of April is the outstanding Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. What better way to introduce the novel, than through words from the novel’s Editor:
The Oxford English Dictionary is the world’s foremost authority on the English language, and its first edition was an astonishing forty-year enterprise begun in the Victorian age and completed in the late 1920s. The Dictionary of Lost Words starts in the ‘Scriptorium’, a converted greenhouse in a North Oxford garden, where the words are compiled by a team of (mostly male) lexicographers; Pip Williams’s fictional heroine, Esme, is a daughter of one of these men.
When Esme is four, playing under the sorting table, one of the dictionary definitions — for the word bondmaid – flutters to the floor. She stows it in her pocket, not quite realising what she has, but other ‘lost’ words continue to come her way. As she becomes a young woman, she realises there are many words that are not considered worthy of the OED. She starts to collect these excluded women’s words – whether from a maid friend Lizzie, or market-stall holder Mabel, whose no-nonsense language teaches Esme as much about women’s bodies and how men can treat them, as they contribute new words to the book that Esme is compiling, the Dictionary of Lost Words.
Pip Williams’ novel was born from the real-life fact that the word “bondmaid” failed to make its way into the first edition of the OED. Set against the burgeoning suffrage moment and the Great War to come, Esme’s social and political awakening comes together with a heart-tugging love story. Pip Williams’s novel has been a huge bestseller in Australia where she now lives, and her gorgeous tear-jerker of a novel is just the sort of bookish balm we all need right now.