What was it like to be a young woman in Oxford, England, during the waning years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th?
Frankly, that's not a question I'd really considered before, but Australian author Pip Williams did, and decided to treat it in a work of historical fiction: The Dictionary of Lost Words.
As a pretext, Williams takes the multi-decades effort of the Oxford University Press to create the Oxford English Dictionary, which is certainly one of the great achievements of English literature. In this time long before computers and machines, the 12-volume OED's 40-year publishing history is one of the great successes of the written word, but rather a challenge to turn into a novel.
Williams's approach is to place the enterprise in a larger historical context. She conjures up a young woman, Esme Nicholl, to serve as her imaginary heroine, and arranges for Esme to work as a clerk in James Murray's team of lexicographers and editors. And she follows Esme's life during the time period from 1885 to 1928, populating her story with a list of historically accurate characters and events: the industrial revolution, the fight for women's suffrage, World War One, and more.
There's plenty to talk about during such a period, but Williams keeps the discussions nicely rooted in the linguistic realm, as Esme experiences the world through a panoply of words. Even now, lexicographers still use approaches such as selecting the Word of the Year to recognize the deep impact that words have on our lives.
And even outside the global realms of science, commerce, and politics, words frame our lives in so many more immediate ways, as Esme comes to learn:
"Do women usually swear when they have their babies?"
She dropped the nightdress over my head. It billowed, then settled against my skin like a breeze. She helped me find the arm holes.
"If they know the right words, they can hardly help it."
"I know some quite bad words. I collect them from an old woman at the market in Oxford."
"Well, it's one thing to hear them in the market and quite another to have them roll around inside your mouth." She took my dressing gown from the back of the door and helped me into it. "Some words are more than letters on a page, don't you think?" she said, tying the sash around my belly as best she could. "They have shape and texture. They are like bullets, full of energy , and when you give one breath you can feel its sharp edge against your lip. It can be quite cathartic in the right context."
"Like when someone cuts in front of you on the way to the cricket?" I said.
She laughed. "Oh dear. Philip calls it my motormouth. I hope you weren't offended."
"A bit surprised, but I think that's when I started to really like you."
The Dictionary of Lost Words ends a little abruptly, and far too soon. I think that's one of the nicer things one can say about a book.