In 1901, the word bondmaid was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.
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.
Our group thoroughly enjoyed this novel. We loved the descriptive writing, the historical perspective, the believable characters and the gentle, interesting way the emancipation of women was treated. We savoured the warmth of the relationships between families and women. It was a love story that involved people, places and language. The treatment of women’s suffrage ran throughout the story but we weren’t ‘hit over the head’ with it. We were connected to it in a subtle, sympathetic way as we observed it through the life of the main character and her observations of others and understanding of the use and meaning of words. Learning how the dictionary was compiled was also fascinating. A great read.
Read by MJ Readers