Book review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams



Quotation slips for the first Oxford English Dictionary.
Owen McKnight/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Roslyn Petelin, The University of Queensland

When a literary luminary such as Thomas Kenneally declares so early in 2020 that he is certain a “more original” novel “will not be published this year”, the reviewer faces a challenge. The book in question is The Dictionary of Lost Words, the debut novel by South Australian writer Pip Williams.

Occasionally, I finish a book that I want to immediately read again, such as Alan Bennett’s delectably quirky book, The Uncommon Reader, which I have re-read several times.


Affirm Press

I have now read Williams’s book twice. I raced through it the first time to see how it would turn out and needed to read it a second time to pick up what I had missed the first time round. In its 383 pages it covers a timespan of more than 100 years: 1882–1989.

Truth in fiction

The novel is set mainly in Oxford, but events occur in Bath, Shropshire, and Adelaide, Australia.

It is based on true events, the central one being the compilation of Oxford University Press’s New English Dictionary (now the Oxford English Dictionary) by a team of lexicographers led by Sir James Murray, and helped by all of his 11 children.

Murray began compiling the dictionary in 1879. It was unfinished at his death in 1915 and completed by his fellow editors in 1928. The second edition appeared in 1989; it is currently being completely revised.

Other historical figures who play key roles in the novel are printer Horace Hart and lexicographer Henry Bradley, who succeeded Murray.

Author Pip Williams speaks about her novel.

Women’s words

Williams’s fictional central character, Esme Nicoll, born in 1882, lives with her father Harry, a lexicographer who works on the dictionary in a corrugated iron shed, grandly called the Scriptorium. It sits in the garden of Murray’s house, Sunnyside, at 78 Banbury Road in Oxford. Esme has lost her mother at a very young age.

She spends her days beneath the sorting table in the “scrippy”, where the lexicographers sort and assess the potential contributions sent to Murray by volunteers following his worldwide appeal for words to be included in the new dictionary.

Sunnyside, the Oxford house where the dictionary was compiled.
Kaihsu Tai/Wikimedia, CC BY

One day, a lexicographer drops off a slip of paper. It falls under the table and Esme rescues it. She places it inside a small wooden suitcase kept under the bed of the Murrays’ housemaid Lizzie. The word is “bondmaid”, which is exactly what Lizzie is. Lizzie supplies her own entry: “Bonded for life by love, devotion or obligation. I’ve been a bondmaid to you since you were small, Essymay, and I’ve been glad for every day of it”. The word is not discovered to be missing until 1901.

Over several years, Esme secretes a trunkful of words:

My case is like the Dictionary, I thought. Except it’s full of words that no one wants or understands, words that would be lost if I hadn’t found them.

Esme and Lizzie also collect words from stallholders in Oxford’s Covered Market, many of them “vulgar”.

Esme‘s gathered words comprise the book published many years later, titled in the novel as Women’s Words and Their Meanings, after Lizzie passes Esme’s collection on to a compositor at the Press. However, when Esme subsequently presents a copy of the volume to an editor who takes over after Murray’s death, he rejects it as unscholarly and not a “topic of importance”, confirming Esme’s experience that “all words are not equal”.

She responds to him: “you are not the arbiter of knowledge, sir. It is not for you to judge the importance of these words, simply allow others to do so”.

Williams grafts an emotional story onto other historical figures and interweaves the themes of women’s equality and the suffrage movement. The suffragist-suffragette divide is layered into the narrative when Esme’s actor friend, Tilda, heeds Emmeline Pankhurst’s “deeds, not words” call to action and ends up committing arson.

A minor character is Esme’s godmother Edith, whose earnest epistles to Esme and her Dad move the plot along, including a painful episode when Esme is treated harshly at a Scottish boarding school. Esme undergoes many changes in fortune, finding some happiness as the story unfolds.

Judge the book

Reviewing this book, I’m reminded of a quote in Putnam’s Monthly magazine of American literature, science and art from April 1855:

I proclaim to all the inhabitants of the land that they cannot trust to what our periodicals say of a new book. Instead of being able by reading the criticism to judge the book, it is now necessary to read the book in order to judge the criticism.

My advice to readers is similar: experience The Dictionary of Lost Words for yourselves rather than getting swept away by the hype. Don’t gobble it, as I did the first time round – savour its heart-wrenching detail.

Unfortunately, a close read does reveal the need for a tighter copy edit. “Radcliffe” is spelt two different ways on opposite pages; “braille” is misspelt; the main street in Oxford is known as “the High” rather than “High Street”. I circled (in pencil) dozens of instances of my pet peeve “different to”.

Regardless, it has had an astonishing pickup by international publishers, who clearly expect it to be a commercial success. It will certainly be a popular book-club choice. Time will tell whether it takes its place beside literary classics.


The Conversation has been contacted by Affirm Press who assure us one of the typing errors mentioned did not go to final printing of the book and appeared only in the advance copies. Another error mentioned will be fixed in subsequent printings.The Conversation

Roslyn Petelin, Course coordinator, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the Classics: Albert Camus’ The Plague


Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

Some weeks ago, I got an email from a student who had returned to Northern Italy over Christmas to see family.

Unable to return to Australia, they were in lockdown. The hospitals were filling up fast, as COVID-19 began to spiral out of control. Sales of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague (La Peste) were spiking. Everyone was buying it.

Rereading The Plague over these past weeks has been an uncanny experience. Its fictive chronicle of the measures taken in the city of Oran against a death-dealing disease that strikes in 1940 sometimes seemed to blur into the government announcements reshaping our lives.

Oran is a city like anywhere else, Camus’ narrator tells us:

Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, ‘doing business’.

Like people anywhere else, the Oranians are completely unprepared when rats begin emerging from the sewers to die in droves in streets and laneways. Then, men, women and children start to fall ill with high fever, difficulties breathing and fatal buboes.

The people of Oran initially “disbelieved in pestilences”, outside of the pages of history books. So, like many nations in 2020, they are slow to accept the enormity of what is occurring. As our narrator comments drily: “In this respect they were wrong, and their views obviously called for revision.”

The numbers of afflicted rise. First slowly, then exponentially. By the time the plague-bearing spring gives way to a sweltering summer, over 100 deaths daily is the new normal.




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Emergency measures are rushed in. The city gates are shut, and martial law declared. Oran’s commercial harbour is closed to sea traffic. Sporting competitions cease. Beach bathing is prohibited.

Soon, food shortages emerge (toilet paper, thankfully, is not mentioned). Some Oranians turn plague-profiteers, preying on the desperation of their fellows. Rationing is brought in for basic necessities, including petrol.

Meanwhile, anyone showing symptoms of the disease is isolated. Houses, then entire suburbs, are locked down. The hospitals become overwhelmed. Schools and public buildings are converted into makeshift plague hospitals.

A convention centre in London has been transformed into a 4,000-bed hospital.

Our key protagonists, Dr Rieux and his friends Tarrou, Grand and Rambert, set up teams of voluntary workers to administer serums and ensure the sick are quickly diagnosed and hospitalised, often amongst harrowing scenes.

In these circumstances, fear and suspicion descend “dewlike, from the greyly shining sky” on the population. Everyone realises that anyone – even those they love – could be a carrier.

Come to think of it, so could each person themselves.

The failure of the governors to consistently impose “social distancing” is shown up spectacularly in the novel’s most picturesque scene. The lead actor in a rendition of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice collapses onstage, “his arms and legs splayed out under his antique robe”.

Terrified patrons flee the darkened underworld of the opera house, “wedged together in the bottlenecks, and pouring out into the street in a confused mass, with shrill cries of dismay”.

Arguably the most telling passages in The Plague today are Camus’ beautifully crafted meditative observations of the social and psychological effects of the epidemic on the townspeople.

Epidemics make exiles of people in their own countries, our narrator stresses. Separation, isolation, loneliness, boredom and repetition become the shared fate of all.

In Oran, as in Australia, places of worship go empty. Funerals are banned for fear of contagion. The living can no longer even farewell the many dead.

Camus’ narrator pays especial attention to the damages visited by the plague upon separated lovers. Outsiders like the journalist Rambert who, by chance, are marooned inside Oran when the gates shut are “in the general exile […] the most exiled”.

Today’s world knows many such “travellers caught by the plague and forced to stay where they were, […] cut off both from the person(s) with whom they wanted to be and from their homes as well”.

Multiple allegories

Camus’ prescient account of life under conditions of an epidemic works on different levels. The Plague is a transparent allegory of the Nazi occupation of France beginning in spring 1940. The sanitary teams reflect Camus’ experiences in, and admiration for, the resistance against the “brown plague” of fascism.

Camus’ title also evokes the ways the Nazis characterised those they targeted for extermination as a pestilence. The shadow of the then-still-recent Holocaust darkens The Plague’s pages.

When death rates become so great that individual burials are no longer possible – as in scenes we are already seeing – the Oranaise dig collective graves into which:

the naked, somewhat contorted bodies were slid into a pit almost side by side, then covered with a layer of quicklime and another of earth […] so as to leave space for subsequent consignments.

When this measure fails to keep up with the weight of these “consignments”, as with the genocidal actions of the Einzatsgruppen, “the old crematorium east of the town” is repurposed. Closed streetcars filled with the dead are soon rattling along the old coastal tramline:

Thereafter, […] when a strong wind was blowing […] a faint, sickly odour coming from the east remind[ed] them that they were living under a new order and that the plague fires were taking their nightly toll.

Camus’ plague is also a metaphor for the force of what Dr Rieux calls “abstraction” in our lives: all those impersonal rules and processes which can make human beings statistics to be treated by governments with all the inhumanity characterising epidemics.

For this reason, the enigmatic character Tarrou identifies the plague with people’s propensity to rationalise killing others for philosophical, religious or ideological causes. It is with this sense of plague in mind that the final words of the novel warn:

that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Ordinary hope

There is nevertheless truth in the description of Camus’ masterwork as a “sermon of hope”. In the end, the plague dissipates as unaccountably as it had begun. Quarantine is lifted. Oran’s gates are reopened. Families and lovers reunite. The chronicle closes amid scenes of festival and jubilation.

Camus’ narrator concludes that confronting the plague has taught him that, for all of the horrors he has witnessed, “there are more things to admire in men than to despise”.

Unlike some philosophers, Camus became increasingly sceptical about glorious ideals of superhumanity, heroism or sainthood. It is the capacity of ordinary people to do extraordinary things that The Plague lauds. “There’s one thing I must tell you,” Dr Rieux at one point specifies:

there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is common decency.

It is such ordinary virtue, people each doing what they can to serve and look after each other, that Camus’ novel suggests alone preserves peoples from the worst ravages of epidemics, whether visited upon them by natural causes or tyrannical governments.

It is therefore worth underlining that the unheroic heroes of Camus’ novel are people we call healthcare workers. Men and women, in many cases volunteers, who despite great risks step up, simply because “plague is here and we’ve got to make a stand”.

It is also to these people’s examples, The Plague suggests, that we should look when we consider what kind of world we want to rebuild after the gates of our cities are again thrown open and COVID-19 has become a troubled memory.The Conversation

Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.