Welcome to British Isles Friday! British Isles Friday is a weekly event for sharing all things British and Irish — reviews, photos, opinions, trip reports, guides, links, resources, personal stories, interviews, and research posts. Join us each Friday to link your British and Irish themed content and to see what others have to share. The link list is at the bottom of this post. Pour a cup of tea or lift a pint and join our link party!
Book: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication date: 2020
Source: audio e-book, borrowed from the library
Summary: Esme Nicoll grew up in the ‘Scriptorium’ where her father worked, with other men, compiling the original Oxford English Dictionary. The Dictionary of Lost Words covers her story from when she was a small girl, hiding under the table at her father’s feet, and well into adulthood as she finds ways to make words the center of her life. The suffrage movement grows into its own at the same time that the first edition of the OED was developed. But, in Esme’s estimation, not quickly enough for words that women use to be included in the many volumes that spread from A to Z.
Thoughts: The Dictionary of Lost Words is a 2021 favorite book! Given that the book is set in Oxford and that the main character is a woman besotted with words, this book was likely to be a winner for me.
This is the novel that I wanted to read ever since I read The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester, years before I started this blog. That was a fascinating nonfiction look at the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. It was made into a movie in 2019, but the film wasn’t as good as the book. What I craved was a historical novel set in the midst of the work of collecting words for a great dictionary.
In The Dictionary of Lost Words, I got more than I could have hoped for. I got Esme Nicoll. She loves both the words in the dictionary and the words used by people who don’t have the privilege of an Oxford education. We explore the creation of a great dictionary by learned men, alongside the experiences of women and of men in lower social classes. Their words aren’t valued in the same way. This book engages us to consider why that is and what might be different in the past and the present if more words, and the people who say them, were included.
Don’t miss the Author’s Note at the end. I love when a historical novel ends with a good Author’s Note!
Appeal: This is a terrific book for anyone who loves the English language and the English setting of earlier 20th-century Oxford. You’ll also like it if you love stories about strong women who encounter barriers to using their voices.
I enjoyed the audio book, but this feels like the perfect book to read in print, while seated in a cozy chair drinking a cup of tea.
Have you read this book? What did you think?