The Bookbinder

A Novel


August 6, 2024 | ISBN 9780593600467


July 25, 2023 | ISBN 9780593600443


July 25, 2023 | ISBN 9780593600450

About the Book

A young British woman working in a book bindery gets a chance to pursue knowledge and love when World War I upends her life in this new novel from the New York Times bestselling author of the Reese’s Book Club pick The Dictionary of Lost Words.

“Williams spins an immersive and compelling tale, sweeping us back to the Oxford she painted so expertly in The Dictionary of Lost Words.”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

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 narrow boat 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, where the female students of Oxford’s Somerville College have a whole library at their fingertips. Maude, meanwhile, wants nothing more than what she has: to spend her days folding the pages of books in the company of the other bindery girls. She is extraordinary but vulnerable, and Peggy feels compelled to watch over her.

Then refugees arrive from the war-torn cities of Belgium, sending ripples through the Oxford community and the sisters’ lives. Peggy begins to see the possibility of another future where she can educate herself and use her intellect, not just her hands. But as war and illness reshape her world, her love for a Belgian soldier—and the responsibility that comes with it—threaten to hold her back.

The Bookbinder
is a story about knowledge—who creates it, who can access it, and what truths get lost in the process. Much as she did in the international bestseller The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams thoughtfully explores another rarely seen slice of history through women’s eyes.
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Praise for The Bookbinder

The Bookbinder is a confident and considered sequel that complicates Williams’s literary universe while riffing on class, family, trauma and remembrance. Williams fully inhabits the world of the bindery and it shows—there’s hardly a page out of place.”—The Guardian

“[A] spellbinding sequel.”—The Australian Women’s Weekly
“A brilliant exploration of who has access to knowledge and the experience of women during wartime.”—Good Weekend

“Pip Williams spins an immersive and compelling tale, sweeping us back to the Oxford she painted so expertly in The Dictionary of Lost Words. . . . a fresh, exciting new voice in historical fiction.”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

“A compelling, beautifully written homage to the transformational power of books. By day, Peggy works in the bindery of Oxford University Press; at night, she devours the books she isn’t allowed to read. Desperate for education and independence, somehow she must weigh the demands of duty, convention and even love against her thirst for knowledge.”—Daisy Wood, author of The Forgotten Bookshop in Paris

“A poignant exploration of the power of books. With this mesmerizing tale of twins who live and work together during World War I, once again Pip Williams puts the spotlight on women’s contributions to literature. Masterful.”—Janet Skeslien Charles, author of The Paris Library

“This compelling story, beautifully told and full of vibrant characters, is a vivid and moving account of how the war brought not only horror and deprivation, but for some—especially women—new freedoms and opportunities which they were reluctant to give up once the fighting had ended. I absolutely loved it!”—Ruth Hogan, author of The Keeper of Lost Things

“What a charming, original and beautifully researched historical novel. It nails the problems facing female ambition in a man’s world a century ago in such a vivid way that it speaks to us still.”—Rachel Hore, author of A Beautiful Spy

“Williams brilliantly weaves a new thread into her world of words at Oxford University. . . . With heartfelt characters, [and] a bit of romance . . . Williams’s novel is a deft story about the meaning of words. . . . Highly recommended.”—Library Journal (starred review)

“Touching . . . The Bookbinder . . . is a rich account of class relations during a tumultuous era in history that also displays deep love and appreciation for literature and its wardens.”BookPage

“Authentic period details and intriguing glimpses into the bookbinding process add to Williams’s portrayal of resilient women. This would make a riveting costume drama for the large or small screen.”Publishers Weekly
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The Bookbinder

Chapter One

The paperboys shouted the news all over Jericho; our walk to work was noisy with it. ‘Defend Belgian neutrality,’ Maude repeated. ‘Support France.’ She said it all, just as the paperboys did, over and over.

When we stopped at Turner’s Newsagency to collect our post, the counter was crowded with people buying newspapers.

‘Nothing this morning, Miss Jones,’ Mr Turner said when he finally saw me. I picked up a copy of the Daily Mail and handed over a halfpenny. Mr Turner raised his eyebrows; I’d never bought the paper before. Waste of a halfpenny, Ma used to say. There were always papers lying around at the Press.

Maude scanned the front page as we walked along Walton Street. ‘Great Britain declares war on Germany?’ It was a headline and a question – she was confused by the celebrating of young men and the worry she saw on the brows of their mothers. But was she asking what war would mean for England or what it might mean for us?

‘We’ll be all right, Maudie.’ I squeezed her hand. ‘But some things may change.’ I hoped they would and felt a little guilty, but not a lot. Maude continued to scan the newsprint.

‘Practical hats at popular prices,’ she read aloud. It was her habit, ever since she’d learnt to read. It was a skill hard earned, and although she didn’t care to read a book, she loved headlines and cartoons – words already arranged and ready to use.

We joined the mass of men and women, boys and girls, flowing through the stone arch of the Clarendon Press. We walked through the quad, past well-tended garden beds, the copper beech and grand pond, into the south wing of the building—the Bible side, we called it, though Bibles were now printed in London. Once inside, all the vestiges of an Oxford college gave way to the sounds and smells and textures of industry. We stored our bags and hats in the cloakroom in the bindery, took clean aprons from their hooks and made our way through the girls’ side. The tables were piled high with text blocks in need of sewing, and the gathering bench was arranged with sections ready to be collated into books.

The folding benches were arranged in three long rows with room for twelve women along each. They faced tall, undressed windows, and morning light spilled over quires of flat printed sheets and piles of folded sections from the day before. Lou and Aggie were already in their places at one end of the bench directly under the windows. Maude and I sat between them.

‘What have they given us today?’ I said to Aggie.

‘Something old,’ she said. She never cared what.

‘You’ve got bits and pieces from Shakespeare’s England,’ said Lou. ‘Proof pages. They’ll take you five minutes. Then there’s his complete works to keep you going for the rest of the day.’

‘The Craig edition, still?’

She nodded.

‘Surely everyone in England has a copy of that by now.’

I pulled the first proof sheet in front of me and picked up Ma’s bonefolder. No one else liked folding proof pages – there were never enough to get into a rhythm – but I loved them. And I especially loved them when they kept coming back. I’d look for the changes that had been made to the text and congratulate myself if I’d anticipated them. It was a small achievement that kept the monotony of the day from sending me mad. Mrs Stoddard made a point of giving me the proofs, and everyone was grateful.

I cast an eye over the printed sheets from Shakespeare’s England: An Account of the Life & Manners of His Age. They were chapter proofs and likely full of errors. One I’d seen before – an essay about booksellers, printers and stationers. I’d been caught reading it the last time it came through – ‘Your job, Miss Jones …’ – but it was worth the reprimand. It was about us, what we did here at the Press and how in Shakespeare’s day it had been dangerous to print a book considered obnoxious to the Queen or the Archbishop of Canterbury. Off with their heads, I’d thought at the time. The other proof chapters were new: ‘Ballads and Broadsides’, ‘The Playhouse’, ‘The Home’. There were fewer than there should have been. If Shakespeare’s England was to be ready for the three hundredth anniversary of the Bard’s death, all the proof pages needed to be coming through now.

The last printed sheet was the first proper draft of the preface. I looked to see where Mrs Hogg was hovering. She was by the gathering bench, checking that the trays of sections were in the correct order. I brought the preface to the top of the stack of sheets and read a few lines: Those who want to know what Shakespeare thinks must not neglect what his fools say.

It was enough to keep me going. I took up the right edge of the sheet and brought it to the left, lining up the printer’s marks just so. I ran Ma’s bonefolder along the crease to make it sharp.

First fold. Folio.

I turned it. Took up the right edge and brought it to the left. It was double the thickness and there was a slight increase in resistance. I adjusted the pressure on Ma’s bonefolder – instinct, not thought. I made the crease sharp.

Second fold. Quarto.

Ma’s bonefolder. I still called it that despite its being mine for the past three years. It was nothing more than a flat bit of cow bone, rounded at one end and with a point at the other. But it was silken smooth from decades of use, and it still held the shape of her hand. It was subtle, but bonefolders, like wooden spoons and axe handles, wear the character of their owner’s grasp. I’d taken up Ma’s bonefolder before Maude could claim it. I’d wrestled with the way it felt in my hand the same way I’d wrestled with Ma’s absence. Stubbornly. Refusing to yield.

Eventually, I’d stopped trying to hold it my way, and I’d let the bonefolder settle into my palm as it had once settled into Ma’s. I’d felt the gentle curve of the bone where her fingers had lain. And I’d sobbed.

Mrs Stoddard rang her bell and I let the memory go.

‘There’s to be a parade,’ she said. ‘A farewell for the Press men who are in the Territorial Army and others who’ve managed to volunteer since the announcement was made.’

The announcement. She couldn’t get her tongue around war, not yet.

There were more than fifty of us bindery girls – the youngest twelve, the oldest beyond sixty – and all of us followed Mrs Stoddard through the corridors of the Press as if we were schoolgirls on an excursion. When our chatter became too much, our forewoman stopped, turned and held a finger to her lips. Like schoolgirls, we obeyed, and only then did I understand what this war might mean for us: the print house was utterly silent. The presses had been stopped. I’d never known it to be quiet and was suddenly unnerved. We all felt it, I think, because our chatter didn’t resume until we came into the quadrangle. Six hundred men and boys were already gathered there. Mrs Stoddard ushered us forward, and I realised that almost every family in Jericho was represented.

There were machine minders and compositors, foundry men, mechanics and readers. Apprentices, journeymen and foremen alike. They were gathered in groups according to their occupation; the state of their aprons and hands made it easy to recognise them. They filled the spaces between the Bible side and the Learned side, around the pond, between the garden beds and all the way back toward the house where Mr and Mrs Hart lived. We’d never gathered like this, and I was impressed by our number; then I realised that at least half the men were of fighting age, or soon would be. I studied the crowd.

Older men passed the time in quiet conversation; younger men were more animated, some congratulating friends, others boasting that the Kaiser didn’t stand a chance.

‘It’s bound to last more than a year,’ I heard one lad say.

‘I hope so,’ said his friend.

They were barely sixteen.

Two foremen, dressed in the uniform of the Territorial Army instead of their Press aprons, tried to bring the younger recruits into line, but the lads were bursting with details of the night before. Those who’d been outside Buckingham Palace held court. They told of the crowd and the crush, the countdown to midnight, the cheers when it was clear the Kaiser would not retreat from Belgium and that England would go to war. ‘It’s our duty to defend Belgium,’ said one, ‘so we sang “God Save the King” at the top of our lungs.’

‘God save us all,’ said a gravelly voice behind me. I turned and saw old Ned shaking his head. He removed his cap and held it to his chest, his gnarled and ink-stained fingers worrying the fabric. When he dropped his head, I thought it was in prayer.

Then a voice, clear and familiar. Maude singing ‘God Save the King’ at the top of her lungs.

‘That’s it, Miss Maude,’ shouted Jack Rowntree.

About the Author

Pip Williams
Pip Williams was born in London, grew up in Sydney, and now lives in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills. Her debut novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, was a New York Times bestseller and a Reese’s Book Club pick. The Bookbinder is her second novel. More by Pip Williams
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