Lemprière’s Dictionary

As the seventeenth century opens, a band of venturers forms the Honourable Company of Merchants trading from England to the East Indies. In France, the siege of La Rochelle ends with the massacre of thirty thousand men, women and children. Almost two centuries later in 1788, John Lemprière publishes his classical dictionary. This much is fact. Lawrence Norfolk’s novel tells how the first two events led, inescapably, to the third.

The story takes in corporate takeovers, voyages of discovery, financial conspiracies and a centuries-old feud between the Lemprières and a secret organisation whose members exert their covert influence from within the eighteenth century’s most powerful multinational: the East India Company.

From the death of his father to the discovery of his true family, through his childhood on Jersey to revelations and rude awakenings in London, the trail leads John through a labyrinth of secret passages beneath London’s streets in a quest for revenge. Here he meets the men who have directed his steps to this point and learns of the ancient hideous crime which began the feud between the Lemprières and their oppressors. The resolution of the feud, and the novel, lies in John Lemprière’s dictionary, which might prove, at the last, to be his death warrant.

The novel leads a cast of scholars, eccentrics, retired sea captains, dissident psychologists, paranoid magistrates, drunken aristocrats, whores, assassins, robots and a crew of octogenarian pirates through two centuries and three continents to the brink of the French Revolution. John Lemprière  enters this world reluctantly as an introverted scholar obsessed with the myths of antiquity. At its close he understands that it takes far more than learning to lay the ghosts of the past to rest.

“Lemprière’s Dictionary” was begun without much thought of publication. I had bought a copy of Lemprière’s original Classical Dictionary when I went to college (it was the cheapest I could find) and used it through my undergraduate course. Its scholarship was out of date (it was published in 1788) but I read the book as a thesaurus of histories and myths. It was fascinating. The preface, on the other hand, included a biographical note about the Dictionary’s author remarkable only for its uneventfulness. So I resolved to give John Lemprière the life he should have had if he were as fascinating as his Dictionary.

Writing the book was an adventure in itself (I hadn’t written any fiction beforehand) but the book was published in the UK in 1991 where it won the Somerset Maugham Award. In the following year it was published in the US and Germany. It has now been translated into twenty-two languages.

Editions of “Lemprière’s Dictionary”

From the reviews of “Lemprière’s Dictionary”


‘a spectacular display of verbal acrobatics…Norfolk shares Pynchon’s insistent, elegiac tone as well. However, he is his own man and knows how to make words work. He is less frenetic than Pynchon and more accessible too. I can think of no greater praise than to say that he is more than a match for his master.’ Time Out

 ‘full of wonderful ideas and images…it is written at white heat in great waterfalls of words – the style is Patrick Leigh Fermor on acid…it is brilliantly inventive and hugely enjoyable. It is above all an entirely original book; and it must rank as one of the most unusual and ambitious first novels to be published since Bruce Chatwin produced THE VICEROY OF OUIDAH in 1980.’ The Spectator

‘An astonishing first novel by Lawrence Norfolk, who succeeds remarkably in keeping all his literary and historical balls in the air.’ Today

‘A love story, and a story of fantastic adventure, it is also a hugely comic novel…immense verve and brilliance…leaves Baron Munchausen for dead.’ Sunday Times

‘A first novel of Victorian proportions, swollen with scholarship and rich with Dickensian subplots. It marks an astonishing debut.’ Sunday Telegraph

 ‘An engrossing and wonderfully intricate extravaganza, never more so than when [evoking] the sights and smells of his pseudo-historical London…a blockbusting saga.’  London Review of Books

‘One longs for a winter of crackling fires and long nights to reread this astonishing, dense work.’ The Times

‘An extraordinary achievement…defying categorization, it is at once a quest, a tragedy, a political thriller, and a cultural meditation…a remarkable work.’ Times Literary Supplement

‘This is historical fiction of mesmerising complexity…It is a masterpiece.            Daily Mail

 ‘Its unflagging inventiveness and encyclopaedic knowledge mingle hard realism with fantasy and a whiff of sci-fi…Throughout, he conveys the dangerous, exciting nature of total history, and what HG Wells’s George Ponderevo called the one reality of human life – illusion.’ Peter Vansittart, The Guardian, ‘I wish I’d Written’ (Column)

 ‘This is indisputably serious, full of a headlong story-telling fury, a striking debut.’ The Guardian

 ‘Norfolk’s precocious achievement is a love story, an adventure story, a work of scrupulously and finely imagined history (from 1600 to the eve of the French Revolution) and a cultural meditation. It is dense with detail, but never shows off, never slows down, and is wonderfully gripping.’ The Observer

 ‘The prose is baroque, the story-telling swashbuckling, the imagining of an exotic past intense.’ Harper’s & Queen

 ‘The 28-year-old Lawrence Norfolk is as good an advertisement as any for the benefits of a classical education, to judge by his spectacular first novel… With LEMPRIERE’S DICTIONARY, the precocious author has catapulted himself into the premier league of English fiction writing.’ The Observer

‘Lawrence Norfolk’s LEMPRIERE’S DICTIONARY is a dazzling linguistic and formal achievement.’ Salman Rushdie, Judge of the 1993 Best of Young British Novelists Award.

US Reviews:

‘a dazzling, not to say exhausting, display of intellectual pyrotechnics’ The Los Angeles Times

 ‘More than any other novel I’ve read in years, Mr. Norfolk’s monumental narrative defies analysis, perhaps even synopsis…it deserves to be read, as Thoreau said of all serious literature, as “deliberately and unreservedly as it was written.” It will tax the imagination, but pay dividends on the principle.’ The Dallas Morning News

 ‘Norfolk does more than delve into British merchant history, French protestant tradition, and the translation and reproduction of classical texts – he’s tackling a genre of fiction with few masters…Norfolk proves himself more than a pretender, and definitely an original.’ East Bay Weekly

 ‘intelligent, atmospheric writing…an involving, tantalizing tale.’ Orlando Sentinel

 ‘LEMPRIERE’S DICTIONARY is a wonder, and it leaves the reader gasping for intellectual breath…the book is fascinating, highly persuasive and, above all, comical, entertaining, and satisfying.’ Book World

 ‘LEMPRIERE’S DICTIONARY is richly textured, intellectually challenging, thrilling fiction.’ The Reader

‘Only a dazzling talent, fusing the obsessional games of John Fowles and Umberto Eco, could come up with LEMPIERE’S DICTIONARY…a Victorian feast of a novel for us all.’ Book of the Month Club

 ‘Lawrence Norfolk’s first novel, LEMPRIERE’S DICTIONARY, is a big loose sprawling, brilliant story. It is a massive entry by a university-trained 28-year-old, born of great erudition and a love of language and history. Most of all, it is a ripping good yarn.’ The Milwaukee Journal

 ‘…a novel that competes with THE NAME OF THE ROSE in its ambitiousness, demonstrates what spectacular things a grasp of Ovid, Pynchon, Eco and Dickens can do for a young literary man’s career…Norfolk will stay cool for a long time.’ Glamour

 ‘Important and inspiring.’ Village Voice Literary Supplement

 ‘Two things about LEMPRIERE’S DICTIONARY are certain: The prose of this densely plotted, sprawling novel is deceptively lucid, and Lawrence Norfolk reveals a massive talent.’ The Boston Globe

 ‘…a dense, exciting, panoramic novel that hints at times of the scope, scene, and style of Charles Dickens…Norfolk’s imagination seems delightfully boundless…For a first time author, Norfolk has created a remarkable piece of work. If the comparisons to Dickens hold up, it won’t be his last.’ The San Diego Union Tribune

 ‘…a magnum opus of literary gusto…Myriad wonders and pleasures abound in LEMPRIERE’S DICTIONARY. Not too surprisingly, Zygia, the last entry in Lempriere’s actual classical dictionary, provides just the right hint to the ending of Lawrence Norfolk’s superbly entertaining novel.’ Washington Post Bookworld

 ‘Mr. Norfolk’s sensuous narrative style, combining ravishing sea- and cityscapes with elegant stream of consciousness recalls the writing of John Fowles…entertaining, cleverly saucy reading.’ The Washington Times

‘Sensuous…plot twists, mistaken identities, coincidences, cliffhangers, and engineered disasters. His novel outstrips any I’ve ever read.’ The New York Times Book Review

‘Mr Norfolk’s sensuous narrative style, combining ravishing sea and cityscapes with elegant stream of consciousness…makes entertaining, cleverly saucy reading…a masterful debut…in a style that merits comparison to Dickens…An exceptional achievement.’ Kirkus Reviews

‘This is an astonishingly inventive and abstruse first novel…There is much in the book that is beautifully written…this remains as impressive a novelistic debut as I have seen.’ The Globe and Mail

 German reviews:

‘A sensational, powerful literary debut.’            Der Spiegel

 ‘A really addictive and outstanding tome.’            NDR Radio, Bücherjournal

‘Norfolk has written a prototype up-to-date historical novel.’ Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

 ‘A wild, intoxicating mixture of adventure, crime fiction, love story and historical novel. A masterpiece, gripping to the very last line.’ ARD TV, Titel, Thesen, Temperamente

‘A gloriously entertaining magnum opus.’  Hamburger Morgenpost

‘I have no idea how this young man managed to write a novel that sweeps away all margins and that is populated with the most wonderful monstrous things. And how he managed to write it so well that you are swept off your feet.’ Süddeutsche Zeitung

‘A piece of language art packed with frightening images.’  Abendzeitung

 ‘A really eccentric book, opulent and obsessed with details. It devours the reader like the Bermuda triangle where he is in danger to drown. And yet: a baroque joy of reading.’ Berliner Zeitung