‘Morbs, Mabel? What does it mean?’
‘It’s a sadness that comes and goes,’ she said, pausing for breath. ‘I get the morbs, you get the morbs, even Miss Lizzie ‘ere gets the morbs, though she’d never let on. A woman’s lot, I reckon.’
The Dictionary of Lost Words follows the slow creep of feminism into one woman’s life at the turn of the twentieth century.
Esme grows up among the sorting slips under the table of linguists who spend decades creating the Oxford English Dictionary. The story opens when she is a young child who cannot read, when she is almost entirely unconscious of the impacts of her gender and class on her life. Motherless from an early age, her father allows her more freedom than is usual for the times.
Eventually Esme aspires to become a linguist herself and slowly discovers the gendered nature of the world around her when she comes up against barrier after barrier. Various life events and the arrival of the suffragettes in Oxford force her to actively define her own political views.
The censure from the dictionary of any word not written down concerns her in particular. Words used frequently by her (often illiterate) friends in service and in the lower classes of the marketplace and the theatre do not make it into the Dictionary.
I adored this novel on so many levels. The characters were wonderful. I could sit with Esme, her father and her friends for many more books. I was sad when there were no more pages to turn.
I also have a particular fondness for the Oxford English Dictionary. As a child, I loved the taste of words in my mouth and would flick through the shorter dictionaries on our home shelves just to find new words and their meanings (this was before streaming television and YouTube, you understand). The Knox Library, in outer eastern Melbourne, had a full set of the Oxford English Dictionary. It sat on a low shelf near the tall windows which faced out onto the car park. I remember having to be dragged away from opening up random pages and poring over weird words with familiar meanings and common words with archaic definitions. I was in awe that one language could contain quite so many words.
One of my favourite characters was Esme’s aunt, a literary figure in her own right. One of her letters to Esme echoed strongly for me in today’s arguments within today’s broad and multi-faceted feminist movement. As with so many excellent causes, it can often feel like you’re not doing ‘enough’. Esme has been worrying over whether she should join her friend, Tilda’s, militant brand of activism, though it doesn’t sit well with her. Ditte tells her to keep being helpful in her own way, but recording the words of uneducated women which would otherwise be lost to history:
‘Do what you are good at, my dear Esme: keep considering the words we use and record. Once the question of women’s political suffrage has been dealt with, less obvious inequalities will need to be exposed. Without realising it, you are already working for this cause. As grandfather said, it will be a long game. Play a position you are good at, and let others play theirs.’
Excellent advice, indeed. We won’t solve all of society’s problems in a single generation – or even several – but we can keep chipping away at them by doing what we’re good at.
I highly recommend this book as a wonderful reading experience, well-researched history and a gentle introduction to the history of women’s suffrage. And, of course, the history of the Oxford English Dictionary itself.