A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier – the story of a woman and a Cathedral in the 1930s
This is a superb book which deserves to be widely read. Set in 1932, this is historical fiction with a keen eye to issues still causing difficulties today. This is a book largely in the cathedral city of Winchester, and features a woman called Violet Speedwell who has sustained great losses. Her search for independence forms a large part of this book, on the surface from her oppressive widowed mother, but in addition from the expectations of a “surplus woman” who would struggle to find love and happiness in the wake of the death of so many young men at the front. It also celebrates the cathedral and the women who worked hard on the embroidery of kneelers and cushions to beautify part of the building, and the bell ringing undertaken by men in the bell tower. It is a book of the countryside, small cities and villages. Families and friendship, skills and characters are well captured in this narrative which keeps moving, all brought together by Violet. Like some of Chevalier’s other books, there is a real person mixed into the story, Louisa Pesel, whose beautiful work and designs are still in use in the Cathedral. I really enjoyed this book, was sorry to put it down, and relished every moment of Violet’s story.
The story begins with Violet wandering into the Cathedral on a whim, and discovering a special service for the dedication of kneelers becomes intrigued with the possibility of leaving her mark in the impressive building. Otherwise life is drab; she has lost her fiance; she works in an insurance company as a typist on minimal wages with two younger women. She has barely enough to cover her rent and food, but she prefers the struggle of a small room with no friends to life at home with her demanding mother who has never come to terms with her eldest son’s death in the War, or her husband’s subsequent death. Tom is the surviving brother, now married with a family. Violet discovers that she can attend a working meeting of the brodiers, and is soon involved in the stitching. She makes a friend, Gilda, who introduces her to Arthur and Keith. As the rest of her family makes alternative holiday arrangements, Violet feels able to go on a walking holiday alone. After a frightening experience, she meets an unexpected helper, and she discovers a whole new world of bell ringing.
This is a vivid book of a community of women, which is shaped by their joint endeavours in a traditional skill. It is laced with some humour, especially in the demands of an older woman and her continual comments. It shows an excellent understanding of the cathedral community and running of the building, she likens it to a “machine”, needing the contributions of those who attend services. The women in the cathedral are jealous, supportive, loving and disruptive, enabling and challenging. Violet is a brilliantly drawn character, with flashes of self doubt but also inspiration, seeing beyond the situation and being loyal. It reveals attitudes to loss, different relationships, and the so called “surplus” women who had to find their own lives, looking after parents, scraping by on small wages way below mens’ wages, dealing with their own losses like Violet’s. This is a tremendous read, worth getting hold of a copy if at all possible. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction with an emphasis on the situation of women in the earlier part of the twentieth century.
I genuinely enjoyed this book, like several others of Chevalier’s, and I particularly appreciated the female characters as representing an entire generation of women. This period in the twentieth century, the build up to the Second World War, is a fascinating one, and Chevalier handles it so well. I will be looking for any others that I have not read and reviewed. Have you read any of her books?