I would not have expected the story of the creation of the first Oxford English Dictionary to be a gripping topic for a novel, but I stand corrected. Pip Williams’ historical fiction encompasses not only the work of compiling the first Oxford English Dictionary but also events of historic importance that occurred during that same time period— WWI and the women’s suffrage movement. Many of the characters in this novel are real people, such as Dr. James Murray and Edith Thompson, but through the main and fictional character, Esme Nicoll, we get a unique perspective on all these events as well as a moving depiction of the bonds among women. Words are empowering and the censorship of women’s words relegates them, especially poor and working class women, to the shadows. Esme, from childhood, bucks against this injustice and finds a way to create her own dictionary.
Esme’s Da is one of Dr. James Murray’s most trusted lexicographers working on the Oxford English Dictionary. The motherless Esme spends much of her childhood in the Scriptorium or “Scrippy” where men and a few women spend years working on it. (James Murray was named its editor in 1879, and the first volumes — A & B — were published in 1888. The final volume was published in 1928.) Young Esme hides under the table, listening and watching the work of the scholars, learning interesting language along the way. As Esme’s Da explains to her, their goal is to collect English words — many sent to them from the public at large —and then go through books to uncover the many ways the words are used. From this, they develop a consensus on the meanings of words. Yet even as a child, Esme recognizes the flaws in this system. The books used as evidence of usage are predominantly books written by men. Those written by women are considered less trustworthy as proof. Moreover, from spending time with Dr. Murray’s maid Lizzie, who is only a few years older than Esme, she discovers that there are many words that will never make in into the dictionary because they are slang or words used by non-literate classes. There is no written evidence of their usage and so they are in danger of being erased from history and completely forgotten.
A particular event from when Esme is about six or seven will lead her down a path toward the recovery of lost words. As she sits under the Scrippy table, she finds a slip of paper with the word “bondmaid” written on it. All words are written on special slips with definitions and revisions pinned to them, then put into pigeon holes. Words that cannot be properly defined are relegated to the fire. Initially Esme intends to return the word to Dr. Murray, as she ought, but when she sees the definition — a slave girl — she is deeply bothered and secretly keeps the word for herself, hiding it in a suitcase under Lizzie’s bed. (It is true that the word “bondmaid” was missing from the first A-B volume of the OED, much to the chagrin of Dr. Murray, and it had to be put into an addendum.) Esme finds herself occasionally pilfering words to add to her suitcase. Although they are duplicates that would not be missed, what she is doing will get her into quite a bit of trouble if discovered.
As Esme grows older, her interest in lost words leads her to go out and find the language that never makes it onto the slips in the Scriptorium in the first place. Hearing Lizzie speak and the words of Mabel, a former prostitute who sells her possessions and carvings in the marketplace, inspires Esme to carry paper and pencil with her at all times so as to record their words and quote the ways they are used. Much of Mabel’s language deals with a woman’s body and sexuality, which gives Esme an education of another sort. Esme sees the exclusion of women’s words and experiences as a form of censorship and erasure which she is determined to fight against. Her suitcase becomes full over her lifetime as does her determination to live the life she wants for herself, not the one expected of young women of her class.
Esme’s journey unfolds against the backdrop of the women’s suffrage movement and World War I. These events are incorporated into the story through other fictional characters including an actress who is a devotee of the Pankhursts and a young man who works at the press that is publishing the OED. Both of these characters and events have great impact on Esme, as do some personal crises related to child abuse and unwanted pregnancy. In all of these situations, Esme must deal with censorship and erasure of some sort. Letters from the front have text excised, women who demonstrate for the vote are arrested, and the women who work at the Scriptorium, including Esme, are not recognized as equals to the men.
The Dictionary of Lost Words is an impressive and spellbinding piece of historical fiction. It reveals the classism and sexism rooted in both language and institutions, and how easily those without conventional power or access to institutions of learning can be erased from history.