Archive for the ‘women's history’ Tag

Dictionary Women — and Men   Leave a comment

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams is an engaging novel about how the complete edition of the Oxford English Dictionary came to be. In addition to its development, perhaps more importantly, it addresses women’s roles in the achievement.

Along with the words that make it into the initial version is the vocabulary that the mostly male lexicographers overlooked – either by design or ignorance. Here’s where narrator Esme comes in. As a young child she spent most of her time under the table where her widowed father and his colleagues collected words for inclusion in the dictionary.

When not in the “Scriptorium,” Esme is in the nearby home of James Murray where housemaid Lizzie cares for the young girl. Despite class differences, theirs is a relationship that endures as Esme grows up and begins her own collection of words. She starts with some discarded by the men and later adds the vernacular of working class women she discovers with Lizzie’s help.

Williams’s novel is inspired by true events, but isn’t just historical. The story is brought to life by the vivid personalities of the main characters, but also lesser, nonetheless equally important, ones. While the dictionary is being compiled (a decades-long endeavor), the arduous battle of the women’s suffrage movement is underway (another lengthy process). The backdrop of societal mores, the Great War and personal relationships imbues the work with emotion.

Words and their meanings are significant but their power is reflected in how they’re used and by whom.

The Dictionary of Lost Words

Four Bookmarks

Ballentine Books, 2021

388 pages (includes epilogue, author’s notes, timeline and book group discussion questions)

The Personal Librarian   Leave a comment

The story of Belle da Costa Greene is important on many levels: her contributions to the art world; her success as a female in the male-dominated society of the early 1900s; and achieving the above as a woman of color.

Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray have crafted a novel based on da Costa Greene, nee Belle Marion Greener the daughter of Black parents. Their fair skin tones were passed along to their children allowing them to pass as Caucasians. The deceit led to the Greeners’ divorce, but allowed Belle and her siblings to live free of racial prejudices.

J.P. Morgan hired Belle as his personal librarian to curate rare books, art, manuscripts and more. Belle proved herself to be a formidable negotiator at auctions when she was often the only woman in the room. The J. Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City holds invaluable collections thanks to Belle’s acquisitions. She was also instrumental in ensuring the library be a public one.

The fast-paced narrative is taut with tension. The importance of Belle hiding her identity is paramount as her prominence among the rich and powerful grows. Although her role as personal librarian allowed her to provide well for her mother and siblings, this was much more than a job to Belle. It was her passion.

The authors allude to speculation that Belle and Morgan had more than a professional relationship; but that remains a mystery. Nonetheless, the shared passion for the one-of-a-kind works was the mainstay of their bond.

The Personal Librarian

Four+ Bookmarks

Berkley, 2021

341 pages (includes author’s notes and acknowledgements)