This novel begins in 1866 in Oxford. Harry Nicholl, an editor of the nascent Oxford English Dictionary, throws a slip of paper into the fire with the word “lily” written on it. His daughter, five-year-old Esme, tries to retrieve it, permanently scarring her hands. Lily is the name of her late mother; as a child she will continue to be drawn to those words, sent in by volunteers across the country to be included in the dictionary, that are left on the cutting room floor or liberated by Esme’s light fingers. They end up in a trunk she keeps under a maid’s bed, which she engraved with the titular words.
As Esme grows up, the dictionary progresses, slip by slip, fascicle by fascicle. Although surrounded by men, Esme comes of age in a relatively progressive and privileged environment – she develops her own ideas about the worth of women’s words and work, and later tentatively becomes an observer of the suffragette movement. There are loves, births and many deaths but the action mainly happens in the Scriptorium where the dictionary is being put together word by word. It is by and large an inoffensive tale, despite the tumult engulfing the world outside. At times it can feel like all the edges have been sanded off the characters, most of them real people, and Esme’s narration often cuts away at key moments, such as when Esme at last tells someone important to her a grave secret. A little more heat – such as the suffragette’s arson attack, or Esme’s learning of what her body is capable of through “vulgar” market words (“It wasn’t love; nothing like it,” Esme says in one of the novel’s most interesting moments, “It was knowledge”) – would have been welcome.
More thought-provoking is Esme’s work in retrieving her lost words. As Esme’s godmother Ditte explains, the dictionary’s rules are that “every word must have been written down, and you are right to assume they largely come from books written by men”. Inevitably this means that all sorts interesting and important words – “women’s words. Dirty words” – are excluded. In an author’s note Williams writes that the novel is “her attempt to understand how the way we might define language might define us”. Esme wonders the same:
I realised that the words most often used to define us were words that described our function in relation to others. Even the most benign words – maiden, wife, mother – told the world whether we were virgins or not.
What to do with this knowledge? There’s a contrast in the novel between Esme’s work as observer and archivist, and the activism of the suffragettes. Esme is criticised – “deeds not words”; “the same words over and over again” – evoking the same frustrations you might hear at political meetings, that it’s all talk, and only to an echo chamber. Williams has it a little both ways, showing the need for those who will act and those who will record.
Gay rating: not gay.