Some readers may be deterred by Esme’s virtuousness and smooth edges. To others, this gentle, hopeful story will be a balm for nerves frazzled by the pandemic or patience fried by sexism. “Everything I do gets eaten or dirtied or burned,” Lizzie, the housemaid working for very little money for the dictionary’s first editor, tells Esme. “At the end of the day there’s no proof I’ve been here at all.” It is Lizzie who assures Esme of the relevance of “bondmaid” and provides its definition.
Williams’s satisfying novel animates a fascinating history and imbues it with a feminist slant, asking how words mean different things to men and women. A relevant inquiry: last year the OED updated classifications of dozens of words including “woman”. While the novel flags a little in its final quarter, this is a captivating debut with a memorable heroine.
This novel was inspired by the accidental omission of the word “bondmaid” from the Oxford English Dictionary in 1901. From this quirky lexicographical incident Pip Williams has conjured an extraordinary, charming novel.... This gentle debut, shortlisted for the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction, builds to a shattering finale. The opening chapters seem to promise something slight and fey, but Williams pins a whole, rich life to the page. You do not end a book in a storm of tears without first coming to love the characters and their world.