The Dictionary of Lost Words – by Pip Williams – independent book review – Historical Fiction (England)

I found myself getting quite anxious as the end of THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS approached. Mostly because I didn’t want it to end. But also because I was worried about the fate of one of the characters. And unsure how the author could end the book in a way that satisfied me. But there was no need to worry and it turned out to be a five star read. (Goodreads)

Let me explain why by first explaining how I see the ingenious structure of this unique piece of historical fiction. The foundation or backdrop is the detail-rich story of the precise, painstaking, and decades-long effort to create the first Oxford English Dictionary (OED). That’s the one that not only includes definitions and pronunciation, but also historical citations of each word’s use and origin. A fascinating story in itself!

Then, woven in and out of THAT story are some of the important, contemporary issues of the era. Like the growing movement in England to grant women the right to vote, the country’s starkly divided class system, and the impact of World War I. Don’t miss the two parallel timelines included at the end of the book which document the actual historical events referenced in the novel and the milestones in the creation of the OED.

University of Oxford where the OED was created.
Photo © 2022 Toby A. Smith

And finally, on top of all this is the wonderful story of protagonist Esme Nicoll, a hero you will come to love. She is entirely fictional, the daughter of one of the editors (also fictional) of the OED.

James Murray, OED’s Chief Editor in the Scriptorium, a room that becomes its own character in this novel.
Photo from Wikipedia

At the start of the book, it’s 1886 and Esme is just six years old, a bright, motherless child who forms an unusually close bond with her father and his work world. As well as with her chief caretaker, Lizzie, maid to the OED’s chief editor, James Murray. By the end of the book, Esme is long dead and more than a hundred years have passed. We follow Esme’s growing up, her friendship with an actress, a bit of romance, her growing competence, and her increasing preference for work over the traditional roles expected of women of her time.

Pip Williams

One of the things I loved best about this skillfully written book is Pip Williams’s ability to subtly raise important questions for me to ponder. Do men and women use words differently? If men control the creation of scholarly resources and references, how does that impact women? If women DO contribute but men keep the written records, will any of those contributions be remembered? If society limits opportunities for women, how much of their knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom is lost over time? And finally, how is all of this magnified when class is added to the equation?

This is a very smart book. Don’t miss it!

More about the author, Pip Williams.

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