The Bookbinder of Jericho
The Bookbinder of Jericho
What is lost when knowledge is withheld?
In 1914, when the war draws the young men of Britain away to fight, it is the women who must keep the nation running. Two of those women are Peggy and Maude, twin sisters who work in the bindery at Oxford University Press in Jericho. Peggy is intelligent, ambitious and dreams of going to Oxford University, but for most of her life she has been told her job is to bind the books, not read them. Maude, meanwhile, wants nothing more than what she has. She is extraordinary but vulnerable. Peggy needs to watch over her.
When refugees arrive from the devastated cities of Belgium, it sends ripples through the community and through the sisters’ lives. Peggy begins to see the possibility of another future where she can use her intellect and not just her hands, but as war and illness reshape her world, it is love, and the responsibility that comes with it, that threaten to hold her back.
In this beautiful companion to the international bestseller The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams explores another little-known slice of history seen through women’s eyes. Evocative, subversive and rich with unforgettable characters, The Bookbinder of Jericho is a story about knowledge who gets to make it, who gets to access it, and what is lost when it is withheld.
This story begins in July 1914, several years after Esme hid her first word in The Dictionary of Lost Words. Another young woman is hard at work, this time at the Oxford University Press. The Press was (and still is today) responsible for publishing academic books of all kinds, and the ‘girls’ fold and sew the pages together at the bindery, only ever seeing tiny sections of the pages, a line, half a sentence, enough to tease but not to know. For Peggy Jones, the not knowing is almost too much to bear. Having left school early to help her mother and twin sister at the bindery, being surrounded by books and yet kept away from a decent education, hurts more than she could ever admit. That the bindery sits across the road from Somerville College, a women’s college created when women could not obtain a degree, only adds salt to the wound every working day. And to be folding page after page and not a single one of them written by a woman – why should it be ‘a woman’s place to inspire stories, not to write them’?!
With the outbreak of war, life changes for Peggy. While her sister, Maude, is ‘one of a kind’ and Peggy has always felt responsible for her, that feeling has only increased since the death of their mother. An opportunity arises for Peggy to try to get into Oxford, but her class, role as a carer, her gender, and self-doubt all hold her back. Can she be everything she needs to be to all of those around her, and fulfill her dreams as well? (What woman hasn’t asked herself that exact question at some point in time?)
Williams has given us a historical novel full of relevance for today. She describes a world where women were held back by a lack of education and a voice. Over one hundred years later, women are still prevented from attending school in some countries, and class can still dictate how much a person can achieve. And yet, what I loved most about this story was that in a book about the importance of having a voice and being able to express yourself, it is the characters who say the least, those of Lotte and Maude, who still haunt me. The empathy, the love and the steadfast stubbornness of all of the women in this book make it a joy to read, and the passion for creating something beautiful, something that will last, will resonate with everyone who has ever held a treasured copy of a much-loved book in their hands.
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