In Pip Williams’ second novel, The Bookbinder of Jericho (Affirm Press), 21-year-old Peggy Jones works alongside her twin sister Maude as a “bindery girl” in Oxford. It is 1914 and although the world around Peggy is changing, she remains stuck and frustrated. Maude has a form of aphasia and requires care, and Peggy is constantly told that books are not for “the likes of you, Miss Jones”. Despite her intelligence and hunger for knowledge, Peggy can only dream of being a scholar.
“The sheets were there to be folded, not read, the sections gathered, not read, the text blocks sewn not read,” Peggy observes, “and for the hundredth time I thought that reading the pages was the only thing that made the rest tolerable.” Her gender and especially her class seem insurmountable obstacles to a life of the mind.
While The Bookbinder of Jericho is not a sequel to Williams’ much-loved debut, The Dictionary of Lost Words, it is set in the same world and some familiar characters return. By any measure, this is risky. Having covered the idea of the gendered nature of language so elegantly in her first novel, does Williams have anything left to say? And can she create new characters as complex and nuanced as Esme and Lizzie?
Yes, and yes.
Part of her success here is due to a clever choice of historical period. During World War One, life for women in England was in flux. The Spanish flu was sweeping the country, killing thousands; the suffrage movement was simmering under the imperative of war; the arrival of Belgian refugees proved eye-opening; and the scarcity of young men meant that opportunities for meaningful work were becoming available for the first time. Yet Williams’ larger point is that all work is meaningful, and that the books and education that the novel idealises are only possible because of the skilled and under-appreciated industry of forgotten women like Peggy. Few novels tackle the subject of labour, and Williams’ descriptions of the minutiae of bookbinding are a fascinating love letter for this lost art.
The obstacle of Peggy’s working-class background is shown with real understanding also. It’s not only the rigidity of society that attempts to dictate Peggy’s future, but also her narrow view of her own possibilities. “We were Town, the students were Gown. Oil and water, usually,” she thinks. In order to change her place in the world, she first needs to change the way she envisages the world itself, and Williams has created a plot to develop this psychological shift in Peggy. She falls in love with an unlikely man, and makes friends separate from her familiar community. Will this give Peggy the courage to explore her intellect, without losing those she loves?
The meticulous yet unobtrusive world-building that saw Williams shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2021 is again on display, and there are many other delights. All of the characters are very fine, but Maude is a wholly original and genius construction: brilliant in her own way yet only able to communicate by repeating something she’s heard or read, she’s a metaphor for all of these intelligent working-class women trapped in their narrow roles.
As women answer wartime England’s call by stepping up to nurse flu victims and keep the country running, it’s easy to feel hopeful for their future. “We’ve been tested and we’ve proved ourselves, don’t you think, to those who needed convincing?” Peggy’s friend Gwen says. “We’ve done their bloody jobs, made their bombs, driven their buses … we’ve mopped their brows, and when they asked us to march toward death, we did – nothing but a face mask between us and the enemy.” The reader knows, however, that when the war is over and the soldiers return, most things will revert for Peggy and her friends. Women’s suffrage, when it finally came in 1918, was limited by class and the fight for genuine equality still seems as though it will never be won. Williams’ compassionate and hopeful view of history is not only a cracking read, it’s a reminder of how far we’ve come, and of the forgotten heroines to whom we owe so much.
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