Motherless, Esme 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. One day a slip of paper containing the word bondmaid flutters beneath the table. She rescues the slip, and is told that the word means "slave girl." Learning that words relating to women's and common folks' experiences often go unrecorded, Esme begins...
It is 1914, and as the war draws the young men of Britain away to fight, women must keep the nation running. Two of those women are Peggy and Maude, twin sisters who live on a narrowboat in Oxford and work in the bindery at the university press. Ambitious, intelligent Peggy has been told for most of her life that her job is to bind the books, not read them--but as she folds and gathers pages, her mind wanders to the opposite side of Walton Street,...