A debut novel by an Australian author, set in Oxford over a century ago and about a girl who took up a covert fight to give women’s words their proper place in the English language, was one of the breakout hits of the Frankfurt Book Fair. International rights for The Dictionary of Lost Words, the first novel by Adelaide author Pip Williams, have been snapped up in fiercely competitive auctions after publishers converged on Frankfurt in October.

Days after going out on submission, rights for The Dictionary of Lost Words were sold in pre-emptive offers from prestigious Random House imprint Chatto & Windus in the UK, and Garzanti in Italy. Since then, rights to Pip Williams’s debut novel have been sold to Random House imprints Ballantine in the US and Heyne Verlag in Germany. Many more territories are expected to be announced in coming weeks.

The international attention for this book is especially thrilling for Affirm Press, and for aspiring writers, because Pip’s first book, One Italian Summer, was discovered in the ‘slush pile’. One Italian Summer, Pip’s warm, funny and poignant tale of her family’s quest to find la dolce vita in Italy, went on to delight readers in two formats, but no one anticipated her potential as a novelist.

‘We had high hopes for The Dictionary of Lost Words internationally, but these deals are way beyond our expectations and we are so delighted for Pip. It’s such a corker of a novel, and I know it will enthral everyone who loves words and being swept along by an epic historical tale that resonates through the ages,’ said Martin Hughes, Affirm Press Publishing Director.

Pip Williams said she was roused to write this book after realising the bias of legitimised language.

‘I used to think dictionaries were for looking up the spelling or meaning of words. I never questioned their authority and I never considered how they were compiled. Then I read about William Chester Minor, a madman who supplied the Oxford English Dictionary with quotations for thousands of words. I realised those quotations were from books written mostly by men, and that it was men making decisions about which words would be included and which would not. It made me think that something might be missing.

‘Between the lines of the Oxford English Dictionary, I found Esme’s story. It is fiction, but it tells a truth that is as relevant today as it was in the early years of the twentieth century, when women’s suffrage and war changed our language forever. I am thrilled that this story will be read in the city where the Oxford English Dictionary is still being compiled. I am humbled that it might resonate beyond the language it was written in.’

Clara Farmer from Chatto & Windus sent an alphabetised love letter to the book along with a pre-emptive offer at 2am in the UK.

‘Pip Williams’ magical debut novel about one woman’s life, growing up in parallel (and in close proximity) to the great Victorian—Edwardian endeavour of the first Oxford English Dictionary has completely captured our imagination at Chatto. Tender, tough, romantic, and wry, Esme Nicholl is a heroine to win readers’ hearts. Pip Williams is a talent to shout about, and her novel is destined to be a favourite with lovers of books (and words) everywhere,’ said Clara.

All international deals have been negotiated by Linda Kaplan of Kaplan DeFiore Agency in NYC.

The Dictionary of Lost Words will be published in Australia on 31 March, 2020 and international territories expect to publish in 2021.

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

Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the ‘Scriptorium’, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word ‘bondmaid’ flutters to the floor. Esme  rescues the slip and stashes it in an old wooden case 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. While she dedicates her life to the Oxford English Dictionary, secretly, 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 the world and our experience of it.

About the author
Pip Williams was born in London and grew up in Sydney but today lives in the Adelaide Hills with her partner, two boys and an assortment of animals. She has spent most of her working life as a social researcher. Her creative non-fiction has been published in InDaily and The Australian and produced for Radio Northern Beaches, and she is very proud of a poem she published in Dolly magazine when she was fifteen years old. Her memoir, One Italian Summer, was published by Affirm Press in 2017 and was re-released in a second format after selling out of its initial print run.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is her debut novel.