Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the ‘Scriptorium’, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word ‘bondmaid’ flutters to the floor. Esme rescues the slip and stashes it in an old wooden case 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. While she dedicates her life to the Oxford English Dictionary, secretly, she begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.
Source: NetGalley and Affirm Press Rating: 4/5 stars
Esme’s life is significantly different from other girls her age. Raised by a single father, Esme spends her days accompanying her father to work where he serves as an editor for the burgeoning Oxford English Dictionary. Though she isn’t allowed to observe the work, she does listen intently and when the day is at an end, she sits beside her father and soaks up the knowledge he shares with her.
Given her time and place, Esme never thought her life would become the dictionary and its creation. With her father by her side, Esme slowly gains more and more responsibility, and she finds the work generally satisfying. With the exception of a few things. One of the things Esme takes exception to is the absence of certain words from the dictionary. From her childhood, Esme has collected the slips of paper containing the words that have been deemed ill-suited for the OED. As Esme grows, matures, and expands her social circle, she begins to understand the words that have been discarded are either words related to women or to the lower classes; that is, words that are deemed inappropriate for polite society.
Through the course of her work with her father and the other men of the OED, Esme learns much about life, others, the world beyond academia, and herself. In her quest to right the wrongs of the world, Esme discovers some of the most rewarding and heartbreaking relationships. From each relationship she learns new words, new meanings, and new ideas to add to her treasure trove of knowledge. Every experience, every encounter, and every word are a new lesson for Esme, and many will stay with her for the rest of her life.
With no intention of ever doing anything with her collected words, Esme is startled to find those among her inner circle see the words and their collection as something entirely significant that should be shared with the world. What Esme has collected, beyond just the words and their meanings, are the stories of the people she has loved and lost, the language of the often ignored, and the vernacular of an entire class of people. Though Esme never really considered publishing her collection, The Dictionary of Lost Words is a gift to those Esme has spent lifetime seeing when others did not.
The Bottom Line: What a sweeping tale this turned out to be! Esme’s life is something of an anomaly for her time and place and those are always going to be the characters and stories I am drawn to. Esme’s story is the story of so many, the lost, the forgotten, the ignored, the displaced, the disapproved-of, and the looked down upon. Esme’s social standing and education allowed her to travel in a variety of circles which allowed her to build her collection of words all while learning about people and places she may have never known about otherwise. Through experience and personal tragedy and triumph, Esme lived her life on her terms and built something incredibly beautiful, a legacy. As the language evolves so does Esme and I found her story and relationships to be both familiar and freshly new. I breezed through this read and found the language of the author to be both easy to read yet appropriate for the story, a combination not easily achieved. Esme’s story is a reminder of the power of words, the lasting influence of language, and how so many are forgotten because of their language.