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Published on 23 May 2023

Bestselling author Pip Williams on her new novel

Internationally bestselling author Pip Williams’ latest novel The bookbinder of Jericho tells the story of Peggy and Maude, identical twins who work in the bindery of the Oxford University Press during World War I.

Many of the men have left to go to war, suffragettes are in the news, and England’s university city of Oxford welcomes Belgian refugees fleeing after their country has been invaded by Germany.

Speaking to around 70 fans at the Noarlunga Library earlier this month, Williams says readers will recognise the setting and some of the characters from her first, award-winning novel, The dictionary of lost words.

But, apart from the focus on books, words and learning, this is where the similarity ends. The bookbinder of Jericho explores the lives of working-class women in a time of tumult. And while Peggy and Maude are identical twins, their aspirations could not be more different.

Maude is happy at the bindery. She is the best folder and at home, in their narrow boat on the Oxford Canal, she is the creator of marvellous paper stars and butterflies.

But Peggy hankers for a different life, more than folding and collating the pages that will become the books that other people will read, more than the scraps of flawed pages she takes home with her. She longs to enter the university as a student, but the doors are closed to her because of her gender and her class.

She is also held back by care for her sister.

“Before the book begins, Peggy and Maude’s mother has died,” says Williams. “Peggy feels the responsibility to care for Maude because she is different.

“I gave Peggy this responsibility on top of the other restrictions because this is something that most of us can relate to. A lot of us have put dreams aside, or at least on hold, in order to care for somebody.”

The war turns the old order upside down and Peggy realises this may be her opportunity to have the life of learning and books that she dreams about.

But falling in love with a Belgian refugee (not really a spoiler, as it is obvious early on) only cements Peggy's dilemma. Love, sister, or reach for the halls of academia? Perhaps her greatest challenge is to move past what she has been told: “It is your job is to bind the books, not read them…”

Williams brings Peggy’s dilemma alive through researching and imagining a time and a place very different from her own.

This was no straightforward task. There was no documented history of the women who worked at the Oxford University Press, apart from a few photographs. By contrast, there were books written about the men working there.

Williams had to search elsewhere for material: a novel written at the time describing the bindery, the art and poetry of middle-class women of the time, accounts of life in Oxford during the First World War – and visiting Oxford itself.

“When you visit a place, you get to walk in the footsteps of your characters, feel the cobblestones under your feet, feel the sunshine. I had to write that sunshine so differently to the sunshine in Australia!” she says.

Curiosity is the spur to Williams’ choice of story and character.

“What I was interested in was the story of the women who stayed home and kept working and kept the country running, women who didn't necessarily have husbands and lovers in the war,” she says.

“At first, I just become curious about something, and I read about it to get a sense of the world that I'm going to be writing about – the main points in history, the main people.

“I am a planner. The first thing I do is to get an idea of how the whole story will look. I then write what interests me; I don’t do it chronologically. Whenever I think I need a fact or historical accuracy, I'll do the research for that. I go backwards and forwards between writing and research.

“I treat writing like a job, so I never get writer’s block. In my old job I could never say to my boss that the muse had left me and I was going home! I just write. The ideas come while I am writing.”

Williams attended the Noarlunga library event as part of the City of Onkaparinga libraries’ program of author talks, reading cafés, and literary events, including the award-winning Southern Deadly Yarns, a series of online author talks highlighting the incredible work of Australia's top First Nations authors. 

Upcoming literary events include:

  • Agatha Christie: Her Life – presented by David Kilner at the Seaford Library on 25 May
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: His Life – presented by David Kilner at the Aldinga Library on 3 June
  • author showcase – hosted by the Seaford Library in September.

The Reading Cafe is a monthly group that meets at Noarlunga Library on Friday afternoons. Participants bring along their current reads and share what they like, love or loathe about them – over a cuppa and a biscuit. The next café is 2-3pm, Friday 26 May.

Library events can been viewed on the website.

Photographer: Andre Goosen