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The Bookbinder of Jericho

The Bookbinder of Jericho, sprang from author Pip Williams' discovery' of archival footage of women who worked in the bindery of Oxford University Press during the early twentieth century. Despite their important role in the production of books, barely a word has been written about them, until now.

Lucy Catchpole experiences a vivid reimagining of Jericho a hundred years ago.

Posted - May 13, 2024

Living in Oxford we’re used to seeing our city in literature, with Jericho sometimes making an appearance, recently in Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, and all the way back in 1894 as Beersheba in Jude the Obscure. But generally, we’re an aside - not the main player.

The Bookbinder of Jericho is different - as the name suggests, Jericho is at its centre.

There’s something uniquely satisfying about seeing streets and places you know very, very well pop up in a novel. Imagining an Oxford where “God save the King” is a perfectly normal way to greet neighbours on an evening walk by the canal.

This 1914 Jericho is both very familiar - our heroine went to St Barnabas School, and drinkers sit outside the Bookbinders Arms - and alien. The canal’s “cloying stench of waste - human, animal, industrial” is happily long gone. 

The book opens just as the First World War breaks out. Peggy and her identical twin sister live on a boat on the canal, in a cosy, comfortable claustrophobia perhaps familiar to lots of us in our compact Jericho homes. 

Our heroine Peggy is a “bindery girl” - working alongside her sister in the bindery of OUP, folding the printed sheets. The “girls” - who are really grown women, of course - are entirely segregated from the men who do all the other work, from printing and proof-reading, binding in leather, applying gold-leaf, to lugging the heavy boxes of finished books. Their mother did this same work before her death - they are a true Jericho family.

Author Pip Williams is clearly fascinated by Oxford University Press at this time - by the beauty and strangeness of a building designed to echo the colleges, but “once inside, all the vestiges of an Oxford college gave way to the sounds and smells and textures of industry”. 

There’s real joy in Williams’ descriptions of the detailed process of book binding - the ‘dance’ of the women as they gather up the pages into the correct order, and amongst the men, the strange process of gilding, wiping a swatch of leather over their hair before using the static to pick up the gold leaf. Both are moments from a remarkable silent 1925 documentary, snippets of reality she’s spun out into the fully-realised, vivid world of this novel.

Books had a different value in 1914 - they were prohibitively expensive. Peggy and her sister have a collection on their boat made up of slightly spoilt bits and pieces she and their mother have pocketed from the bindery. Peggy is an avid reader, as was her mother. Her sister Maude does not relate to paper, to books, in quite the same way. A very different character from Peggy, perhaps autistic, she can read but isn’t compelled by reading. She folds paper instead - into origami stars and hearts. 

The contradictions of growing up in Oxford are all here - Peggy folds the exam papers that OUP prints, scanning the questions and imagining possible answers. But she’s learned the “mathematics of shopkeepers” at St Barnabas School, leaving to start work at age 12. She’s so very close to the centre of academic learning, but totally separate from it. 

The proximity of the university looms large in this book, with the gap between town and gown spelt out. In St Sepulchres Cemetery, which becomes the background for love scenes between Peggy and a newly-disabled Belgian officer, “Neighbours in life were neighbours in death…The dead of Jericho lay together along the north wall, and the dead of Balliol, Trinity and St John’s along the South”.

When the war-wounded come to Oxford, injured officers are nursed in Somerville, while other ranks recover in the Radcliffe Infirmary. Through chance, our heroine becomes a volunteer on the Somerville side, till one injured officer complains:

 “Sister… why have I been given her? …She should be attending her own at the Radcliffe Infirmary”.

Peggy is definitely town, but she has aspirations. Somerville College - one of very few women’s colleges at the time - lies just on the other side of Walton Street.

Oxford University is a kind of holy grail for Peggy, but when she finally sees Somerville, it isn’t an uncomplicated paradise. It’s shabbier than she expects. More importantly, women are still not actually granted university degrees - this wouldn’t change until 1920. Women students aren’t even allowed access to the Bodleian Library. And at Somerville we’re introduced to well-heeled young women who yes, are planning to study, but not in the pursuit of great learning: “...a bit of English, a bit of History, passable French. That’s all most of us need to make a good marriage and not be an embarrassment”, says one undergraduate. In spite of all this, Peggy still longs for the University, but the book is richer for these details.

Back in 1894, Thomas Hardy has Jude hopelessly wander the streets of the city, where “only a wall divided him from those happy young contemporaries of his with whom he shared a common mental life… – but what a wall!” 

In its way, in The Bookbinder of Jericho Pip Williams has imagined a later, women’s version of Jude the Obscure. But she is gentler on her heroine - 
Peggy gets far closer than Jude ever could.


Pip Williams contacted Jericho Online to say: I am the author of two novels set in and around Jericho - The Dictionary of Lost Words and The Bookbinder of Jericho. I have benefited from your wonderful website and its various contributers, and I want to say Thank you. Your resources have helped me to describe Jericho as it might have been at the turn of the twentieth century, and I've no doubt they have made my books better.

I am based in Australia, but I will be coming to Oxford on June 4th to talk about my books at Blackwell's bookshop. If you think your community might be interested in this talk, please feel free to share the event link. It will be such a pleasure to talk about my books with an audience who have a connection to the places they are set.