Motherless Esme spends a good deal of time at her father’s workplace – the Scriptorium, a somewhat misleadingly named shed in the garden of Dr. Murray, who in 1884 embarked on the mammoth project of creating the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) with the aim of filling the gaps in Samuel Johnson’s famous work.
An inquisitive child, Esme collects the postcard-sized slips of paper which fall into her hiding place beneath a work table. Each slip contains a word submitted for consideration with a definition or quotation containing it. She forms the habit of keeping for herself words which she has been told will not appear in the dictionary, since there is no written record of them to provide the necessary “evidence”.
As an adult, Esme chooses not to become actively involved in the “votes for women” campaign, and she seems to accept fairly meekly the fact that, simply through being female, she is unable to gain qualifications and advance as a lexicographer or editor, despite her obvious knowledge and capability. Yet her unusual childhood makes her unconventional in surprising ways, so that, to keep a measure of personal freedom, she makes a radical and painful decision of the kind she may regret for the rest of her life.
Increasingly aware that the OED reflects and is limited by the vocabulary of educated men brought up in the Victorian era, Esme finds an outlet for her suppressed frustration and her curiosity through acts of quiet defiance: collecting and creating a written record of the words which ordinary, often illiterate people use in daily conversation, unlikely to be heard by lexicographers in the strongly class-divided society of the time. She realises that words used by and about women in particular are missing from the OED, including those considered obscene, but in common use. So “knackered” is noted as an overworked servant’s graphic description of feeling exhausted. “Dollymop” is a pejorative term for a prostitute, or an actress who is presumed to be one.
One might criticise the author for applying “modern” attitudes to the situation in the early C20, yet through Esme she is making a thought-provoking point.
Not until reading the Author’s Note at the end did I appreciate the extent of her impressively detailed research. Imaginary characters like Esme, and the loyal servant and friend Lizzie who does her best to be a mother to her, are interwoven quite skilfully with the real Doctor Murray and his family, together with Esme’s godmother Ditte and her novelist sister Beth, both volunteers who contributed words to the cause.
One of the most interesting aspects is the continual definition of words. I’ve learned that “cushy” comes from the Hindu word “khush” for pleasure, while “bumf” was apparently used in the First World War for scraps of paper needed for the trench latrines.
As an Australian writer, Pip Williams manages to weave in that the descendants of the Karuna people did not lose their natives language as a result of colonisation, because German missionaries made the effort to consult with the Aboriginal men, and write it down for the record.
Although I was drawn by the originality of the theme, the narrative frequently drags under the weight of repetition and detailed banal descriptions. It could be argued that this conveys the nature of Esme’s life in what is on one level a deeply realised fictional autobiography. There is excessive sentimentality for my taste, and some unconvincing plot developments with too many coincidences, or a tendency to “come to nothing”, except to pad out a book which often seems overlong.
It is worth making the effort to finish this novel, which should provoke a lively, wide-ranging discussion, making it a good choice for a book group.