Anyone who has read Simon Winchester’s book, The Surgeon of Crowthorne, will wonder how the story of the compiling of the Oxford English Dictionary can ever be fictionalized. It is a fascinating account of an unlikely volunteer and his helping James Murray, the editor of the first OED, with words, their meanings and usage.
Anyhow, Pip Williams, a London-born writer who lives in Sydney, has attempted it with The Dictionary of Lost Words, the third and last of the books my aged father gifted me for my birthday this year. She says she was inspired by The Surgeon of Crowthorne, and how the compiling and editing of the Oxford English Dictionary was an entirely male endeavour. In the author’s note at the end of her book, she writes:
“A few years ago, a good friend suggested I read Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne. It is a non-fiction account of the relationship between the Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray and one of the more prolific (and notorious) volunteers, Dr William Chester Minor. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I was left with the impression that the Dictionary was a particularly male endeavour. From what I could glean, all the editors were men, most of the assistants were men, most of the volunteers were men, and most of the literature, manuals and newspaper articles used as evidence for how words were used, were written by men. Finally, the Delegates of the Oxford University Press – those who held the purse strings – were men.”
She goes on to say that on exploring further, she did find that there were some women involved with the first OED, mainly Murray’s daughters, Hilda, Elsie and Rosfrith, who all worked on the Dictionary, but as she puts it, “in minor and supporting roles”. However, as a reader, you discover this only at the end of the book, when you reach the author’s note.
In her book, The Dictionary of Lost Words, the non-fiction account of James Murray and his team compiling the OED forms only a backdrop. It sets the context for what is essentially a coming-of-age fictional story of a young girl who grows up in a world of words and how she uses them to make sense of the world around her. The young girl, Esme, is the daughter of Mr Nicoll who works as an editorial assistant to James Murray. The book is written in first person by Esme, and tells the story of her life, lived in and around the Scriptorium, a large shed set up in Murray’s garden for him and his team to work on the Dictionary.
Esme lives in a world inhabited by grown men, with words and books for company, since she has no friends her age. It appears that the author has deliberately chosen to keep it this way, in order to exaggerate and heighten the sense of the male and masculine world that Esme grows up in. Esme grows up at her father’s feet – quite literally too, as you will soon discover – and has no friends, except Lizzie, has no formal education, and has no mother.
Esme’s friendship with Lizzie, is not one of equals, though Esme never talks down to her. Lizzie is a female attendant working in the Murray household under the supervision of Mrs Barnaby, who I take it, is their housekeeper. Lizzie keeps a close watch over Esme and in many ways is also Esme’s window to the outside world, from which she is otherwise sheltered. Their trips together to the covered market, opens Esme’s eyes to an entirely different set of people, not merely in manners and dress, but in language as well.
I am not sure if setting this novel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is reason or justification enough for Esme to not have any formal schooling. The author mentions here and there that she moves schools, but it is clear schools don’t play any part in Esme’s life. She grows up in her Da’s lap and at his feet. When he’s working at the Scriptorium, Esme goes under the table – a large desk around which many assistants work – and collects scraps of paper. These are no ordinary scraps of paper, but words that have been discarded from consideration for the Dictionary. Esme collects them and stores them safely in a trunk beneath Lizzie’s cot, with her dream of someday compiling a dictionary of lost words. And that is what the book is meant to be about.
As far as Esme’s mum’s absence is concerned, you hardly ever sense it. Her name Lily is perhaps mentioned just a few times through the entire novel and Esme herself hardly ever thinks of her. Strange, I thought. The only time we as readers sense Lily’s absence is when Esme attains puberty and her father has a tough time trying to explain menstrual bleeding and menstruation to her. In one of the conversations between Esme and her father, he brings up the subject of her marriage into a good family, and says that Lily would have taken care of it. Esme lets her father know that she is not in the least interested in marriage, and asks him what a good family is.
‘“What exactly is a good family, Da?”
Well, I suppose for some it’s about reputation. Others, money. For others it might mean education or good works.
…A good family is one where there is love.”
I nodded. “Thank goodness for that, because I have neither education nor money, and my reputation relies on secrets and lies.”’
The book is organized in parts by years and the various stages of the compilation of the Dictionary. And through the course of the novel, we see Esme grow up and get more familiar with words and their meanings. Her trips to the covered market with Lizzie, where she interacts with sellers of wares, introduces Esme to a completely different vocabulary from her own. She learns of new words that are not merely colloquial, but pertaining more to women. Words like dollymop and morbs. When she asks Mabel, a maker and seller of whittles, what morbs means, Mabel simply says, “It’s a sadness that comes and goes. I get the morbs, you get the morbs, Lizzie gets the morbs, though she never lets on. A woman’s lot, I reckon.”
But the word that is central to the Dictionary and Esme’s own dictionary of lost words is bondmaid. Apparently, it was left out of the volume with all the A and B words, and someone wrote to James Murray to complain about its omission. During an exchange with Lizzie, who wants to know what the word means, Esme looks at the scrap of paper with three meanings and replies, “A slave girl, or a bonded servant or someone who is bound to serve till death.” (This sentence is in italics in the book)
Lizzie thinks about it and says that is probably what she is to the Murrays. Esme tries to comfort her by saying the word doesn’t describe her, but Lizzie continues, “Don’t look so stricken, Essymay, I’m glad I’m in the Dictionary, or would have been, if not for you. I wonder what else is in there about me?”
Through the trips to the covered market to widen her vocabulary, Esme also happens to meet a set of people who are from the world of theatre and activism. She befriends Tilda and her brother Bill, who also introduce her to the suffragette movement in Britain. I suppose the author is trying to once again contrast Esme’s sheltered life at the Scriptorium and Sunnyside (Murray’s home), and the great big world outside where women were busy fighting for their rights.
The book at least attempts to tell a story with a proper structure and storyline (unlike some novels I have reviewed earlier on my blog, including Ian McEwan’s and Ishiguro’s). As a reader, you get a sense of the characters developing as well, as the story progresses. However, all the fuss about a young girl in a world full of middle-aged men, and her activism friends eventually amount to nothing. If you are supposed to feel admiration and awe for Esme secretly collecting words for a parallel dictionary of lost words, all you end up feeling is pity and sympathy for her.
For Esme is a young girl who is not in control of her life. She does end up working as a junior editorial assistant at the Scriptorium, but has no life beyond it. She gets pregnant by the first chap she has ever really met or known – Bill, Tilda’s brother – and has to give up the baby girl to foster parents. And as far as her own dictionary project is concerned, she doesn’t get to see it through. Instead, a young compositor (I had to look up the word) called Gareth Owen who she later falls in love with and marries, surprises her with his version of it: Women’s Words and Their Meanings. Here is Esme describing the moment of unwrapping Gareth’s gift:
“Gareth’s gift was loosely wrapped, a handful of new slips scattered on top of it; they are bumf to anyone but me.
I pulled on the string and the paper fell away, as it had the first time. Women’s Words and Their Meanings. The same quick beat of a thrill. But there was a sediment of sorrow this time. And fear. I looked more closely at my gift, searched each page. I wanted to find something that would replace his comb, his greatcoat, his book of poems. It was unreasonable to expect there would be anything, and irrational to think it would make a difference.”
Esme is too overcome by emotion to even notice that her project has been taken away by Gareth unbeknownst to her, with the complicity of Lizzie.
I don’t know if Pip Williams intended for Esme to be a woman without agency in the end, because she never really grows up, even though she is surrounded by middle-aged adults. She never outgrows her naïve ways and views of the world. To the author’s credit, though, her portrayal of Esme’s aunt, Ditte (whose real name is Edith), shines through at various places in the book in the form of letters to Esme. Ditte comes across as the voice of good sense, wisdom, caring and affection, a woman who seems to know what’s right for Esme and is there to guide her. She is probably meant to fill the place of the mother that Esme lost.
And as far as Esme and Lizzie are concerned, the book ends with another interaction the two have, over the word bondmaid. Or at least Lizzie’s interpretation of it when she tells Esme that she is no slave to her but is bonded to her anyway. “I’ve been a bondmaid to you since you were small, Essymay, and I’ve been glad for every day of it.”
The Dictionary of Lost Words might make good reading for a young girl, a young millennial perhaps. And although it begins as a well-structured novel with fairly well-etched characters, the story of the young girl’s dictionary set against the backdrop of the great OED, unfortunately loses its way towards the latter third of the book. I think it’s because Esme herself loses her way and her sense of purpose. Hopefully young millennial readers will not allow that to happen to them.
The featured image of a page of my father’s old two-volume OED at my parents’ place in Goa, is mine, and you can see the word bondmaid is very much there.
PS: As has been customary for a long time now, I end this post with the usual comment that this book too reeks of Perfect Relations mischief along with their cronies in BBDO Chennai. Is it any coincidence that so many books which I have read recently and in which they have meddled, there is always only a reference to schools and school friends? That lack of proper, formal education should be such a strong feature of books’ storylines and book-writing is puzzling to say the least.
Not so puzzling actually, because it is a deliberate part of their years-long attempt to make me someone else – including my younger sister, Bhavani Sundaram, whom they have been encouraging and helping to write books these days. It is such a pathetic attempt to hide all their unprofessionalism and meddling in my life and my work.
And since they have been meddling big-time in the publishing and printing of books for so many years, they have ensured that this book is full of details about editing, writing, compiling, typesetting, including binding, etc, all the various aspects of book publishing you may want to know about.
Also immediately perceptible is their (PR agency and BBDO Chennai’s) preoccupation with maids, nannies, servants and slaves. Bondmaid, is the central word in this book. These are all telltale signs of unprofessional idiots’ meddling, to the extent that they have almost become their trademarks. They meddle almost on a daily basis through the part-time maid who works at my parents’ place in Goa – Sridevi – as I have mentioned before on my blog.
It’s also full of references to assistants, another of Perfect Relations’ obsessions. Their COO, the same stupid Valerie Pinto, who shrieked about AIDS ORPHANS in their office, once had the nerve to tell me that I am an Asst.! I wondered what Asst was, until I soon realized that the agency fosters a culture of treating anyone who does any work an Asst. to mean assistant, not associate, as I first thought. That’s because so few do any work in that circus. Another of their trademarks. 🙂
I have worked in good and well-established advertising agencies such as Ogilvy in India, where every employee is considered a professional in his or her own right. Nobody is an assistant to anyone else.
And finally, for all the author’s feelings about the OED being a male endeavour, she has robbed the protagonist of any agency in bringing her own dictionary of women’s words to life, by making her an uneducated, unlettered, naïve young girl collecting words on scraps of paper.