The Bookbinder of Jericho is a perfect companion to Pip Williams’ wildly successful debut, The Dictionary of Lost Words.
Williams again explores the power in words by weaving a brilliantly imagined story around a slice of very real history, sprinkled with fine details of the fading craft of book making and a cast of women who shine in spite of the brutal upheaval of the First World War.
Although The Bookbinder offers a wholly different perspective from The Dictionary, the two novels intersect in a few special ways, including place (the Oxford University Press in the UK), time (early 20th century), and some characters (notably the inimitable actress Tilda Taylor and Esme Nicoll’s romantic compositor Gareth Owen).
At the centre of The Bookbinder is Peggy Jones and her twin sister Maude. Just like their recently deceased mother Helen before them, the sisters work in the bindery of the Oxford University Press, on Walton Street in Oxford’s Jericho neighbourhood. Stationed on the designated ‘girl's side’, their job is to gather and fold the printed sheets to be stitched and bound into books. On the ‘men's side’ of the press is the work of the proofreaders, typesetters, compositors, foundrymen and mechanics - the full army of experts historically required to publish books - under the watchful eye of the press controller.
Peggy is clearly frustrated. Her intellect and thirst for knowledge sees her sneaking glances at the words on the pages she folds, at risk of rebuke from her overseer, Mrs Hogg: “Your job is to bind the books, not read them.” Sometimes, she purposefully makes a folding error or a tiny tear, so the pages would be discarded thus she could spirit them away to add them to the growing library lining the walls of the twins’ home, a narrowboat on the canal named Calliope.
Where Peggy really wants to be is across the road from her work, earning a degree at Somerville, Oxford University’s women’s college – a seemingly impossible dream given Peggy’s class and station in life, being unquestionably ‘town’, not ‘gown’. Making it harder still, she feels the weight of responsibility in caring for her beloved sister who, in today’s world, might be described as neurodivergent.
As the First World War rumbles into reality, the world begins to shift. While the anxiety, dread, pain and futility of the war seeps through the pages of The Bookbinder, Williams also captures the cracks of possibility that the war begins to tear through society for women like Peggy. Status and gender become less of a block when a country needs defenders, carers and workers to keep it going.
Both on the home front where Peggy and her bindery colleagues step up to a range of tasks – from making munitions, taking in refugees, and nursing the wounded – and on the front lines, where Tilda has volunteered, the lives of Williams’ cast of characters are changed in ways they never imagined possible.
Social commentary of the time forms the bones of this novel, but its beating heart is its attention to the old craft of bookmaking and the largely forgotten role played by women. Book readers – including myself – are likely to have paid scant thought to the sensory details Williams includes – the feel of the bone-folding tools, the rhythmic manoeuvring required to gather the sheets, the fishy smell and noise of the press, the texture and lustre of the cover's leather and lettering. These details provide a richness to this story that I loved.
It was such a blessing that Williams stumbled across some photos of women of the press when she was researching for The Dictionary, sparking the idea for this touching story, which is full of very well-researched archival details and brimming with insights into the oft overlooked work and aspirations of women of the time.