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In 1901, the word bondmaid was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.
Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, Esme spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of lexicographers are gathering words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary.
Esme's place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day, she sees a slip containing the word bondmaid flutter to the floor unclaimed. Esme seizes the word and hides it in an old wooden trunk 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. They help her make sense of the world.
Over time, Esme realises that some words are considered more important than others, and that words and meanings relating to women's experiences often go unrecorded. She begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.
Set when the women's suffrage movement was at its height and the Great War loomed, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. It's a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape our experience of the world.
© Pip Williams 2021 (P) Penguin Audio 2021
An extraordinary, charming novel... Williams pins a whole, rich life to the page
Poignant, perfectly paced... a beautifully nuanced work
Williams's satisfying novel animates a fascinating history and imbues it with a feminist slant, asking how words mean different things to men and women
This lovely slice of historical fiction... A highly enjoyable resonant tale about the hidden and frequently gendered stories behind the words we take for granted
A captivating and slyly subversive fictional paean to the real women whose work on the Oxford English Dictionary went largely unheralded
From historical tales to modern life dramas, laugh-out-loud love stories to fiendishly twisting thrillers – whatever your taste in novels, we have some perfect new voices to enjoy a well-earned break with this year.
Pip Williams’ bestselling novel The Dictionary of Lost Words aims to share a history that women were originally cut out of: charting the English language.