Lemprière's Dictionary and The Fictional World of Archives

Original Novel Title: Lemprière's Dictionary

Author: Lawrence Norfolk

Publisher: London, England: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991 (hardcover)

All quotations are from the British hardcover edition.

According to John Roberts, this epic novel features as its main character John Lemprière of classical dictionary fame pitted against the Secret Committee of the East India Company.

At one point towards the end of the novel Lemprière is given a tour of East India House. His guide is named Theobald Peppard and he identifies himself as "Keeper of the Correspondence" (p. 399). Theobald proudly notes that " 'Only I, of all the Company's thousands of employees, have a whole floor to myself.' " (p. 399)

Lemprière, after commenting that " 'Your floor seems somewhat smaller than the others,' is escorted through a narrow door into "a vast cellar" (p. 399):

Rough corridors ran forward and to either side between hundreds of thick blocks. Each was ten feet or more across and reached from floor to roof. Lemprière took them for squat supporting columns. The musty smell was much stronger inside, the air cold with damp. Then he saw that the columns were paper; vast piles of sheaves of papers stacked in blocks. The cellar was an archive of monstrous proportions. Theobald walked ahead of him, turning this way and that beetween the mouldering piles until they could no longer see the door through which they had entered, the side walls, nor yet the far end of the cellar. Lemprière heard the faint drip of water somewhere in the darkness. The smell of damp paper was all around him. (p. 399-400)

Theobald also claims " 'Only I have the right to enter the Archive,' ... Even the directors must apply for permission.' " (p. 400). Then in a properly Gothic scene, three mysterious figures enter the Archive. Theobald and Lemprière hide from them, then follow to the opposite end where the two men and a young woman disappear as if through a door. Reaching the end of the room Lemprière discovers "a wall in which alcoves were set, hundreds of them running to left and right. A door was set in each, lower even than the one through which they had entered." (p. 402).

Lemprière opens some of the doors only to be told that " 'They are just little cellars, extra storerooms for the archive. None of them go anywhere.' " (p. 402). But Lemprière discovers that the archivist is wrong, one of the doors does lead further into the depths of East India House.

And the chase is on ....

CONTENTS: The Fictional World of Archives

Suggested by John Roberts, 1997.10.28. Updated 1997.11.26.