All posts by Pip

WOMEN AND THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY.

 

 

On 6 June 1928, one hundred and fifty men gathered in London’s Goldsmiths Hall to celebrate the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The guests were men who had served the Dictionary for decades or months or not at all. They ate Saumon bouilli with sauce Hollandaise, and they drank 1907 Chateau Margaux.

Among the guests was Professor J.R.R. Tolkien. He had not yet written The Hobbit, but after serving in WWI he spent a couple of years in the Scriptorium (a grand name for the garden shed where the Dictionary was being compiled) defining words beginning with Wa. We can thank him for waggle and walrus and warlock. I’d like to think he was also consulted on wizard, but there is no evidence of this.

Gentlemen representing The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Manchester Guardian were also invited. As were scholars, editors, clerks, men of the cloth, knights of the realm and a humble school headmaster.

They poured into the Hall and found their places at three long tables arranged in front of another, higher, table. These were the lesser men, though some wore robes and most were in tuxedos. A bell rang and they turned to see the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, being chaperoned by the Prime Warden, Sir William Pope, to the high table. Other honoured guests followed and champagne glasses were filled with a 1917 Pommery & Greno.

I know what they ate because I’ve seen the menu. I know who was there because I have a copy of the seating plan. I also know that there were three people who did not have a seat at any of the tables, but history records their presence in the balcony that overlooks the Hall.

I have had to imagine so much to make sense of why these three were missing from the guest list, and how it might have felt to watch the celebration unfold.

So here I am, on the balcony looking down.

It is a concession to the rules of Goldsmiths Hall that I am here at all, so I should be grateful. I look to my right, and there are the three: Edith Thompson, Eleanor Bradley and Rosfrith Murray. These women have been working on the OED for decades. Few men in the Hall below can claim longer service. Rosfrith is the daughter of Sir James Murray, the first and most celebrated editor. She has been employed to serve the Dictionary since she was 17. I follow her gaze to the high table where her brothers, Oswyn and Harold, sit opposite the Prime Minister. As children, they all helped sort slips containing quotations, but it is Rosfrith who chose to dedicate her life to the project. I look to Eleanor, her wire-framed spectacles make her look more serious than she is. Eleanor is the daughter of Henry Bradley, the Dictionary’s second editor. She has been collating and defining words longer than Rosfrith. And then there’s Edith, my favourite. She is an old woman now and I imagine she is reflecting on the first words she contributed to the Dictionary. Her name can be found among the acknowledgements of volumes from A to Z.

The soup course is served – tortue claire. Perhaps the Prime Minister has a distaste for turtle. He chooses now to make a toast to the editors and staff of the Oxford English Dictionary. He taps his silver dessert spoon on an empty crystal glass. The chime rings loud and clear. The Hall falls silent.

‘Perhaps before I begin I may make a confession about the Dictionary. I have not read it. But if ever a work was destined for eternity, that is it.’

Mr Baldwin speaks for some time. My companions and I lean on the banister of the little balcony, straining to hear. The movement is a relief; the seats are hard and the space cramped.

‘The Oxford English Dictionary is the greatest enterprise of its kind in history, and I ask you therefore to drink to the health of its editors and staff.’

The Prime Minister raises his glass and every man in the Hall does the same. It is a symphony of crystal and there is a jubilant congratulating hum directed towards those who are known to have spent their time defining the words. There are 150 men in that hall and not one looks to the balcony.

I turn to the women. Do they feel this snub as I do? I mime the raising of a glass. They are surprised to see me, but happy to play along. We come together in a silent celebration of the contributions they have made to this great enterprise.

I wish I could tell them that the Prime Minister was right, that the Dictionary was destined for eternity. And I wish I could tell them, that nearly a century later, the women who continue their work have been given a place at the table.

 

THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS

In 1901, the word bondmaid was discovered missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. This is the story of the girl who stole it.

Motherless and irrepressibly curious, Esme spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of lexicographers are gathering words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary.

Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day, she sees a slip containing the word bondmaid flutter to the floor unclaimed. Esme seizes the word and hides  it in an old wooden trunk 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. She begins to collect words for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

Set when the women’s suffrage movement was at its height and the Great War loomed, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative,  hidden between the lines of a history written by men. It’s a delightful, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words, and the power of language to shape our experience of the world.

The Dictionary of Lost Words  has become a bestseller in Australia, and will published in dozens of countries and translated into multiple languages.

What others are saying about The Dictionary of Lost Words

‘What a novel of words, their adventure and their capacity to define and, above all, challenge the world. There will not be this year a more original novel published. I just know it.’ Tom Keneally, author of Schindler’s List

‘Full of heart and tenderness, heartbreak and joy, love and loss … this is the perfect iso read.’ The Herald Sun

‘The debut novelist who’s become a lockdown sensation.’ The Guardian Australia

‘The biggest treat of The Dictionary of Lost Words is the complexity of a central character who is not easy to classify – a listener with an innate understanding of the life-changing importance of valuing people’s words.’ The Saturday Paper

‘This is a wonderful debut novel … I even cried while reading it on the train.’ Sarah L’Estrange, ABC Radio National’s The Book Show

‘My advice to readers is: experience The Dictionary of Lost Words for yourselves rather than getting swept away by the hype. Don’t gobble it, as I did the first time round – savour its heart-wrenching detail.’ The Conversation

‘A thought-provoking celebration of words.’ Better Homes and Gardens

‘There’s a lot of buzz around this book with good reason.’ The Herald Sun

‘A lovely book.’ The Adelaide Advertiser

‘A thoroughly original concept married to beautifully rendered characters, immersive setting and intensely satisfying storytelling – The Dictionary of Lost Words fulfils all the promises of the best historical fiction.’ Melissa Ashley, author of The Birdman’s Wife and The Bee and the Orange Tree

‘Esme and her world really resonated with me. She is a terrific character: intelligent, empathetic and resilient. I was exhilarated reading this novel.’ Readings Monthly

‘Endlessly fascinating and more and more enchanting the further you go, this is a book you can completely lose yourself in.’ Ben Hunter, Fiction Buyer at Booktopia

Visit my publisher’s book page:

The Dictionary Of Lost Words

THE SEARCH FOR POKEMON GELATO

It took seven years and one day for Shannon and me to make the decision to quit our jobs, take the boys out of school and fly to Italy.
For seven years we’d been trying to live the good life, the kind of life that Matthew Evans glides through on The Gourmet Farmer; the self-sustaining bliss of River Cottage. They make it look easy, but we were rubbish at it. We’d planted an orchard, dug a veggie patch and bought a few chooks, but seven years later the fruit was rotting on the ground, the chooks were dead and the sight of zucchini made me want to scream. We had no time for it.

Continue reading THE SEARCH FOR POKEMON GELATO

AN ITALIAN RECIPE FOR REPOSE

When was the last time you used the word, Repose? When was the last time you even heard it?

Repose is one of those old-fashioned words, like eventide or winsome. It conjures an era when there was time in the day for restful contemplation.

Is that why we don’t hear it anymore? Because we’ve run out of time? Because we’re so busy doing all the things that make up our twenty-first century lives that the moments in between this, that and the other thing are just not long enough? Continue reading AN ITALIAN RECIPE FOR REPOSE

ONE ITALIAN SUMMER

Published by Affirm Press in April 2017

Pip and Shannon dreamed of living the good life. 

They wanted to slow down, grow their own food and spend more time with the people they love. But jobs and responsibilities got in the way: their chooks died, their fruit rotted, and Pip ended up depressed and in therapy. So they did the only reasonable thing – they quit their jobs, pulled the children out of school and went searching for la dolce vita in Italy. Continue reading ONE ITALIAN SUMMER

LAST DAY IN THE DYNAMITE FACTORY

By Annah Faulkner

Published by Picador, 2015

The title of this book is portentous and I began reading with an expectation that something explosive would happen. It did, and sooner than I thought. On the first page a stick of dynamite is wedged into the stubborn roots of a camphor laurel tree, because despite its hacking it would not die, ‘a tiny green shoot had sprung from its stump’. A metaphor surely, of hope perhaps, or the persistence of truth. By the end of page two the green shoot is gone for good, but the memory of it lives long in the boy who ran from the blast, and it lies like a foundation stone beneath the architecture of this lovely book.

The story starts, in earnest, more than thirty years later. Chris is now in his forties and he’s mourning the death of his aunt, and adoptive mother, Jo. Her passing ignites the fuse that drives the narrative of this book. Jo was his mother’s sister, but about her, she spoke very little. She was the keeper of knowledge and the hoarder of secrets. Her death magnifies Chris’s feeling that he doesn’t really know who he is, and intensifies his longing to understand his mother, and identify his father.

It often takes a while for me to enter fully into a story. I observe it from a safe distance, making assumptions about its worth, judging its scale, the quality of its construction, the attention to detail. First impressions can set up a resistance. it’s like seeing a house for the first time; its style, its era, the embellishments on the balcony. These things have nothing to do with how habitable the building might actually be, but they can all slow your progress to the front door. It took no time at all to feel comfortable in this story. It was immediately familiar. An Australian voice perhaps, an iconic Queensland setting – the sloping block and old Queenslander recognisable no matter where in this big country you grew up.

Last Day in the Dynamite Factory draws you in. It’s not like the pull of a car crash or the voyeurism of salacious gossip. Instead it’s the kind of story you want to hear because it reflects your own concerns – identity, relationships, work, family and love. The detail may not be ours, but the larger questions are the same as those that echo through our own quiet moments.

There is a big story here, and at times it explodes and the shockwaves move it forward at a perfect pace. But the smaller stories are equally engaging. Chris’s relationship with his wife, Diane, is delicately told and Faulkner writes beautifully about sex and love and the longing for them to coincide.

Work is another theme that many readers will relate to. Why we do what we do, and what it costs us. Chris is a conservation architect who would like to be doing something else but is shackled by his expertise and good reputation.

The very domestic nature of these themes, and the human scale of their rendering, make this an accessible read. But it is the skilful writing – the sturdy frame and invisible joinery, the balance of form and function – that make this a great read.

The persistence of truth – within us, between us, and over the course of time – is like a tiny green shoot that sprouts through this book. The truth, in the end, makes a good story and I would not hesitate to recommend it.

Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney

THE STRAYS

By Emily Bitto

Published by Affirm Press, 2014

Who hasn’t imagined themselves part of a world more exiting, more colourful, more sensual, or perhaps, more dangerous than their own?

1930s Australia is a bland and conservative place, subdued by economic depression, isolation and censorship. For an adolescent Lilly, becoming friends with Eva is like glimpsing the colourful spectrum of ordinary light as it passes through a shard of broken glass.

Eva is the middle daughter of Helena and Evan Trentham. He is a well-known avant-garde painter; she has a glamour that rebels against the restraint of the times and separates her from the other mothers, who dote earnestly on their children and keep tidy hours and tidy homes. The Trentham home is old and expansive; the architecture of the house, and the people within it, is ramshackle. But inside and out Helena cultivates a kind of unrestrained beauty; bringing artists together with the same eye that nurtures wild growth in her garden.

Lilly is drawn into the life of the Trentham’s like a stray is drawn towards food. She skulks on the edge of that life, observing, but unobserved. She collects the crumbs of hedonistic abandon: moments of attention; fragments of knowledge; discussions and behaviours found nowhere in the beige confines of her parents’ home.

The neglect of the Trentham daughters is extended to her, and as their large house fills with more and more strays, Lilly becomes witness to the emergence of Australia’s Modern Art Movement and its most notorious actors and scandals.

Emily Bitto has written beautifully and convincingly – I had to double check the Trenthams did not actually exist because Bitto’s portrayal of their life seems familiar. In particular, I couldn’t help wondering about the lives of children living on the periphery of the Heide circle in the 1940s. This is not their story, but it might have been.

What is born of an uncompromising commitment to a life of art? The Strays asks this question over and over, and the answer swings between light and shade; between vibrant beauty and hidden rot.

Bitto uses metaphor to great effect. When describing Helena’s miniature paintings she writes, “She had put them in places where they were vulnerable to damage … They were neglected, mishandled, exposed to the elements. But this did not lessen their impact. They contained the strength of weather within them.” This passage could be about Helena’s approach to her children as much as her art. Like the paintings, Eva and her sisters are marked and sculpted by exposure and neglect. Lilly, too, is windswept by her time in the household.

Lilly is so recognisable in her longing to be part of the Trentham Family, and also in her moments of reluctance, when risk is perceived and her conventional upbringing shows its hand. But she is not one of them. In her words she “was a cuckoo in the nest, an imposter who listened and observed, hording and collecting.” When the time comes, she is returned from whence she came.

This book was so satisfying in its rendering of the complexity of a life lived for creativity, and the inherent potential and hazards of that life. I do not know, even now, who should be held responsible for which outcomes. The Trentham’s life, like Helena’s garden, was full of creative chaos and colour brought about by a rejection of convention and a certain amount of neglect.

But, as any gardener knows, neglect can promote growth, or retard it. It depends entirely on the nature of the organism.

Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney