The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, Ballantine Books 2020. 359 pp.
This is a difficult review for me to write. It is all about words, and after reading it, my own words seem inadequate. The place is Oxford, England, and the year is 1886. A group of men are working to create the first Oxford English Dictionary. It would seem to me that a dictionary written in Oxford would be well done. Well, everyone there was happy with it, but that was not really the case. When I say everyone, I mean all men, as women were not expected to have any opinions.
Among the group is Esme’s father. Esme is about five years old and smart beyond her years. The men sit at a table and view words that have been sent to them. They decide if the words will be used, and if so, arranged in alphabetical order.
Esme sits under the table and picks up entries that have been dropped on the floor and does her own sorting. One day she realizes that words relating to females and common folks’ experiences are never kept and starts collecting them herself, storing them in a trunk in her room. Esme’s mother had died and Lizzie, a cook’s assistant, takes care of her and over the years becomes Esme’s friend and confidante.
The story is told from Esme’s perspective. Over the years many things happen that affect their lives, including the women’s suffrage movement and World War 1.
Through it all, though, the lack of respect for a woman’s worth is very evident. There are men who have wives they love, but that’s about it. Even worse are the lives of the poor. There are no resources to help them. When Esme gets older, she goes to the market on Saturday where merchants have set up booths. There are many good booths, but some – like a woman named Molly- pathetic. She just sells junk, but Esme buys things from her just to help her out. Molly has no home or anyone to help her. One day she gives a word to Esme who writes it down, and that’s the best thing that ever happened to Molly.
There is so much to write about that I will stop here and hope you may read it yourself. I found it fascinating and different.