A literary whodunit, a comedy of intentional errors, a paean to romance and rebellion—when talking about Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary, it’s hard to resist uttering a constellation of descriptors, thanks to the abundance of clever (delightful, inventive, loopy, memorable) words that pepper its pages.
In the mystery aspect of Williams’ entertaining tale, the Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary is the case file, and mountweazels (made-up dictionary entries) are the crimes against vocabulary. The perpetrator of said crimes and the sleuth sniffing them out are separated by a century but bound together by their mutual employer, London’s Swansby House. And the potential victims? Well, that’s where reading the book—and learning a plethora of pleasurable words, genuine and fake—come in.
Williams speaks with BookPage as she walks her dog near her London home, where she lives with her wife, writer Nell Stevens. Williams explains that the inspiration for the novel came from acts of literary subterfuge that were born both of her studies—her Ph.D. research and thesis were about mountweazels—and the ways in which her own perspective on dictionaries and other arbiters of language has changed over time.
“Words are deemed slang or dialect rather than proper English, but who is making that call?”
When she was a child, Williams explains, her parents “kept an illustrated Collins Dictionary by the dinner table. It seemed normal at the time, but it’s probably not good to have books surrounded by steam.” Potentially wrinkled pages aside, she says that for a long time, “I found comfort in pedantry and in saying no, that’s not what that word means; I can check. . . . That rigidity was a useful thing worth preserving.”
But as the years passed, her outlook on language became more fluid. “Words are deemed slang or dialect rather than proper English, but who is making that call?” she says. “What does that say about their political or ideological position? Now it’s more important to me to query that, to resist the idea of immutability.”
And so, in the hands of her character Peter Winceworth, mountweazels become tools of resistance. The year is 1899, and he works as a lexicographer in charge of the letter “S” for Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. One of many employees at the bustling Swansby House, he’s a reserved man prone to (and it seems, fond of) lying.
One of his longest deceptions: a lisp he affected as a child when he realized it “made people respond to him with a greater gentleness.” Williams paints a spot-on portrait of an emotionally stunted man who is always at least a little bit enraged, often hilariously so. His erudition makes for some impressively articulate internal rants about, say, a too-loud bird or his boisterous co-workers.
While there’s a certain poetic justice in seeing Peter seethe at a situation created by his co-opting a speech impairment for his own gain, it’s also fascinating to bear witness as he embarks on his next fabrication—or rather, series of fabrications, via mountweazels galore. He knows that language “is something you accept or trust rather than necessarily want to test out,” thus ensuring that made-up words like “skipsty (v.), the act of taking steps two at a time” will be published unnoticed because, after all, who would even think of inserting dishonesty into a dictionary?
It is important to note that mountweazels have often been deliberately employed by dictionary publishers as a creative means of protecting their copyright. The evocative term originated in the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia, which describes the fictional Lillian Virginia Mountweazel as having died “in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.”
But generally speaking, one presumably would not expect a dictionary-house employee to simply make up words . . . unless that employee was Peter, who is trapped in a life of unending frustration, massive workloads and unrequited love.
“So much of the novel is actually about the workplace and how one can feel valued or under-valued or purposeless within a structure or architecture that’s bigger than you,” Williams says. “The motif of the dictionary formed a correspondence with notions of labor and of boredom, and of value and self-worth.”
Indeed, despite having never held an office job (“It was an entire fantasy!” she says with a laugh), Williams truly captures the essence of office life— its moments of revelation and accomplishment, as well as its lack of privacy and enforced camaraderie—both on the cusp of the 20th century and, as in the novel’s second timeline, in the 21st century, when sole Swansby’s employee Mallory is tasked with digitizing the entire dictionary.
Mallory works under the supervision of 70-year-old David, a descendant of the Victorian-era Swansbys, who is determined to create a new company legacy. Mallory’s assignment sounds straightforward enough, if a bit of a slog, but there is an unfortunate catch. Her mission will not be complete until she has found and eradicated all of the mountweazels from the dictionary, while tracking her work on what she believes to be the world’s slowest computer. Like Peter’s irritated ravings, Mallory’s restless internal perseveration on her computer’s please-wait hourglass is grimly humorous in its familiarity: “The iconography of the hourglass hinted at a particular progression: that all natural things tend toward death. This was not good for office morale.”
Betwixt and between hourglass-induced distress, Mallory’s other primary duty is fielding daily phone calls from a deranged-sounding man who issues bomb threats because he’s angry that the definition of marriage is changing (to include more than just a man and a woman). The calls are terrible and traumatic, and doubly so because Mallory is struggling with self-disclosure. Her partner, the gregarious and loving Pip, has always been out, but Mallory isn’t ready just yet.
Williams says that this aspect of The Liar’s Dictionary drew on real-life events from when she was writing the novel, particularly the backlash to certain dictionaries making changes to their definition of marriage. This, she explains, raises “the idea of language as no longer a useful tool that rises from society, but rather something potentially constrictive and to do with didacticism, rather than something changeable and mutable.”
Williams is far from alone in her desire to reexamine and challenge the status quo of societal monoliths, dictionaries or otherwise. After all, she says, “The idea of an infallible dictionary can seem quite sinister, and not about what language can be, and is. There are enough syllables in the world . . . for us to communicate while being supple with language, ambiguous rather than relying on fixity and an ordained truth.”
Under Williams’ guiding hand, much is mutable in The Liar’s Dictionary, and wonderfully so. The narrators’ parallel secrets surge to the fore and shrink back, heightening their feelings of isolation and honing their desire for genuine personal freedom. Comedic set pieces involving an unfortunate hard-boiled egg, drunken perambulation and an agitated pelican are as memorable as they are deliciously subversive (and in the case of the pelican, just . . . astonishing). And there are more secrets in this book than those—ones that inexorably lead our heroes to a conclusion that is exciting and gratifying in the realms of both vocation and vocabulary.
On the whole, The Liar’s Dictionary is a smart, funny, passionate exploration of how language can serve, challenge or define us. It’s also a testament to the power of speaking up and using our voices, whether on the page, in our own heads or out loud.
Fans of Williams’ acclaimed Attrib. and Other Stories have been looking forward to this novel, which she wrote while working as a lecturer in creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. She’s also a fellow of England’s Royal Society of Literature where, she jokes, “We all have a go at sitting on the throne.”
Alas, there are no literal thrones—but she does get to be “a part of literary culture” in England. “The best bit is,” she says, “when you’re inducted, you get to sign your name in a big book, and you get to choose a pen. The pens on offer—one belonged to Byron, another to George Eliot, I think another was T.S. Eliot, and they’d just stopped using the one from Charles Dickens. You do have that moment a bit like Mallory and Winceworth, where it’s just an object, just a thing, but you’ve invested so much in notions of literary worth and value, and you’re just enthralled by it and have that moment of connection.”
At this point in our chat, Williams and her dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Bryher, prepare to hurry on home. Of her dog, Williams insists, “You must say, ‘She’s so athletic and dedicated!’”
Done and done.
Author photo by Antonio Olmos