In 1857 work commenced on the first Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the successor to Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary. It took 40 years to complete the first volume – the letters A to B – so imagine the lexicographers’ consternation when in 1901 they were informed a word was missing. The word was bondmaid.
Williams tells the story of Esme, the fictional girl who stole it. Esme interacts with characters based on real men and women. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford. Here, her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers work collecting words for the first OED. Esme sits under the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word bondmaid flutters to the floor. Esme rescues the slip and stashes it in an old wooden case that belongs to her friend, Lizzie, a young servant in the big house. Esme begins to collect other words from the Scriptorium that are misplaced, discarded or have been neglected by the dictionary men.
Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others. Only words appearing in works of literature are included in the OED. Words and meanings relating to women’s experiences are often overlooked. While Esme dedicates her life to the OED she secretly, with Lizzie and the stall holders at the local market help, begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words. Women’s words.
The OED was completed in 1933. Williams sets Esme’s story against the backdrop of Victorian social mores, the rise of the women’s suffrage movement, and the looming Great War.
The inspiration for The Dictionary of Lost Words came from Simon Winchester’s work of non-fiction, The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998), a factual account of the creation of the OED under the editorship of Dr James Murray. Williams found the book as a “particularly male endeavour” in which women were conspicuously absent.
There was an initial discussion on the relative merits of the two books. Those who had read Winchester’s offering thought it a better researched, more comprehensive account. However, for many of us, Williams’ novel was the first time we learnt the story of the creation of the OED. We quickly agreed that the two books came from different genres of literature and so were complementary. In writing historical fiction Williams had more leeway with her characters and plot.
We felt Williams had created relatable characters in Esme and Lizzie supported by Da, Esme’s gentle father and Ditte, her godmother. Mothering Sunday by Graham Smith (OBG Nov 2018) was recalled with its central character, Jane Fairchild, the quintessential bondmaid.
We were fascinated by the process of compiling the OED. Members of the public sent in words written on small cards or slips. They were requested to define the word. Then support that definition by using it in a sentence from a published work of literature. Once the slips arrived at the Scriptorium they were edited by the lexicographer until they were precise enough to be sent to the printing press. One member referenced Mass-Observation, a project which required and received extensive input from the public. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass-Observation
We wondered if Esme stealing duplicates from the floor of the Scriptorium was an act of rebellion. She had the skill to be an editor, but her gender assigned her more menial roles of opening the post and delivering completed words to the printing press.
The conversation moved on to words – without words there is no expression of self. Our thoughts are restricted by the words we have to describe them. They shape our world and give us a reason to be. We discussed the fluidity of the English language with new words constantly added. One member joked that she had been in a lift with some teenagers and had not understood a word they were saying. Words can define your tribe.
While the book had been ostensibly about words, it was really about class divisions. Esme had opportunities her bondmaid Lizzie could never aspire to. Esme and other educated middle-class women were the driving force for political change through the women’s suffrage movement; rather like the Teals today quipped one member. We all found the ending moving. After a brief fling with a man she had not loved, Esme had been forced to give her child up for adoption to a couple who moved to Adelaide, South Australia. When Esme dies in a car accident copy of The Dictionary of Lost Words is sent to her daughter, Megan. Megan has become a lexicographer too. She stands to address an academic meeting opening with the word bondmaid to describe her mother as a woman bonded for life by love, devotion or obligation.