Winchester in 1932 is the setting for Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, A Single Thread. Chevalier is the most reliable novelist I know, time and again she writes books I grow to love and to re-read. She is the true example of an iceberg novelist. The depth and detail of her research is invisible, hidden below the surface of the written word, but it is there nonetheless informing every sentence so the reader is confident that the description of various embroidery stitches is accurate. Chevalier has written about fossil hunters, weavers, runaway slaves, orchardists and a famous Dutch painter. In A Single Thread the story involves Winchester Cathedral, bell ringing and embroidery.
Violet Speedwell escapes her mother’s house in Southampton by getting a transfer to work in the Winchester office. Her mother is an emotional bully and Violet is desperate to get away, but not expecting it to be quite so difficult to survive alone on a typist’s salary. Lonely, desperate to make a success of her move, Violet looks for something to occupy her time so she does not have to sit with the other spinsters in the drawing room of her boarding house. One day she steps into the cathedral and finds her way blocked by an officious woman. Today, it is explained, is the Presentation of the Embroideries. Violet joins the broderers stitching kneelers and cushions for the hard benches, and meets two women who will be influential in her story; fellow borderer Gilda Hill, and genius embroidery designer Louisa Pesel.
Chevalier draws a picture of an English city in the years after the Great War, as families still grieve for their lost ones and women have to dance together for the shortage of male partners. And whilst the last war cannot be escaped, the shadow of fascism lurks in Europe. Violet is a surplus woman, her brother and fiancé killed in the war, but she rebels against the idea of devoting the rest of her life to caring for her bitter mother. Hence the move to Winchester. There she finds employment, friendship and, possibly, love. Both activities described in detail – the embroidery and the bell ringing – are detailed, complex and build slowly, layer on layer, each preceding stitch or note needing to be exact before the next one is attempted. This is reflected in Violet’s own life; only when she makes peace with her past, her mother’s grief for her lost son George, Violet’s own grief for her fiancé Laurence, the mind-numbing boredom of her job, can she move on to the next layer of her life.
Like all Chevalier’s novels, this is a thoughtful read about a time of great change involving women’s emancipation and independence, where women frown on other women who act against convention. If you like fast-moving stories then this may not be for you. I thought it was delightful and read it quickly, suspecting how it may end and – almost – being correct. But not quite.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
A SINGLE THREAD by @Tracy_Chevalier #bookreview #historical #literary https://wp.me/p5gEM4-40S via @SandraDanby