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Lizzie the grateful servant in “The Dictionary of Lost Words”: why do authors keep getting class horribly wrong?

Audiobook cover of the novel The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. The book cover has a navy background with a dark illegible script. The title is written on scraps of paper surrounded by red poppies coming out of an old suitcase.

This book had been recommended to me countless times. It was one of those books that kept coming up in conversation everywhere. It is a book about words, feminism and women’s voter rights, and dictionaries. These are generally things that I love and have an interest in. There were many aspects of this book that I loved, but there were things that just bugged me. Frustrated me even. And it sadly ruined a lot of the book for me. So, if you were looking for an upbeat review from me today, this might not be it. But hear me out.

I genuinely loved the premise of this book – and the author is right in looking at and questioning what words are valued more than others. How languages evolve is directly related to who has certain kinds of power. For most of our recent history, that power has sadly belonged to white cishet men. So when the main character of the novel, Esme, begins to collect words that are considered less important, she starts a revolution of words without really understanding what she is doing. The first word Esme collects is bondmaid. It is used to describe Lizzie, Esme’s servant.

In the beginning, the book takes on issues of gender and class rather well. Esme goes into the markets and meets women of all different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds and collects words that describe their professions and life. In doing so, she helps bring a voice to women who cannot read or write and who will never have social or economic power.

On the surface, this all seems good and well. Although, I want to take a closer look at the relationship Esme has with her servant, Lizzie. Esme is motherless, and Lizzie acts in many ways like an older sister and motherly figure all in one. This plot device of women who have lost their mothers and their fathers aren’t great at raising them is a bit tiring and overused for me. Although, I might just read too many books…

Throughout the novel, Lizzie and Esme’s relationship is always presented as equal. As though there is equal power, footing, and care. Towards the end of the novel, Lizzie has a conversation with Esme where she talks about loving the relationship has with Esme and also being a bondmaid. This is what really frustrated me. It is impossible for an indentured servant to have the same power as their owner. I’m sure Lizzie would have some love for Esme, but this also feels like Stockholm syndrome rather than two equal women caring for each other. Lizzie has no other option but to forever be in Esme’s control.

This idea that ‘the help’ love and care for their masters is beyond naive. It romanticises slave labour, women’s unpaid work, and unequal power dynamics. The grateful servant trope is toxic. It is classist, and everything that Williams tries to do in the book feels undone in the way that Lizzie is portrayed. This trope has been used before in other texts too. The novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett does something similar. In Stockett’s novel, however, there is also the element of racism and the enslavement of Africans to work and build the United States of America. The idea that servants can love and have equal relationships with their masters frames indentured servitude and slavery as some domestic ideal. The idea that women trapped in these roles truly love it and cannot imagine their life any other way is more likely because of the relentless trauma and assault these women have had on their mental and physical health – that they cannot picture themselves doing anything else is a response to what society has told them over and over since they became bondmaids.

Feminism today is forgetting class elements and how they can intersect with other issues like gender and racism. Lizzie’s character deserved better. If we ignore how class and poverty cause real and long-lasting trauma in people, then we are not doing feminism right. It has been shown to cause mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, and behavioural changes like resource hoarding, and it can affect how people rationalise and make decisions.

Esme was an awful person, and honestly, Lizzie was the star of the book for me. If you have any suggestions of novels that you think do a better job at discussing issues of class and slavery, please let me know in the comments. As always, share the reading love.