REVIEW: A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier
1932. After the Great War took both her beloved brother and her fiancé, Violet Speedwell has become a “surplus woman,” one of a generation doomed to a life of spinsterhood after the war killed so many young men. Yet Violet cannot reconcile herself to a life spent caring for her grieving, embittered mother. After countless meals of boiled eggs and dry toast, she saves enough to move out of her mother’s place and into the town of Winchester, home to one of England’s grandest cathedrals. There, Violet is drawn into a society of broderers–women who embroider kneelers for the Cathedral, carrying on a centuries-long tradition of bringing comfort to worshippers.
Violet finds support and community in the group, fulfillment in the work they create, and even a growing friendship with the vivacious Gilda. But when forces threaten her new independence and another war appears on the horizon, Violet must fight to put down roots in a place where women aren’t expected to grow. Told in Chevalier’s glorious prose, A Single Thread is a timeless story of friendship, love, and a woman crafting her own life.
Spoiler (TRIGGER WARNING): Show
Dear Ms. Chevalier,
Something in the blurb for this book called to me. In the past few years, World War I has been the subject of many books and movies. The horrific loss of a generation of men deserves remembrance. But what about the women left alone, the “surplus women” who were left with little chance to marry and had to find ways to support themselves? Violet Speedwell seemed as if she wasn’t going to take being deemed superfluous, sitting down.
Violet has finally gathered her courage and left home. Even confronting her mother to tell her she was leaving had emotionally taken all Violet had. After her father had died, though, Violet couldn’t endure living with her criticizing mother anymore. She might now be residing in a boarding house with other single women and the object of pity for her two (much younger) fellow typists where she works but Violet feels freer.
A chance decision to visit Winchester Cathedral on her break will change Violet’s life. There she sees a presentation ceremony of embroidered kneelers which are to be used to cushion the knees of worshipers. At first Violet is slightly amused – a formal presentation of needlework? Then she sees a kneeler up close and meets a woman who made it. Suddenly, Violet longs to make one herself though it takes her a while to winkle out the reason. At first, the bristling and officious women Violet meets at the broderer meeting almost puts her off. It takes an encounter with Louisa Pesel – the woman responsible for devising the patterns being used – to draw Louisa back in. With the natural ability of a true leader, Louisa opens the world of embroidery for Violet and makes Violet want to improve.
Soon Violet finds herself with a new acquaintance, Gilda, who in turn introduces Violet to Arthur Knight (whose name is emblematic of his character). In Arthur Violet discovers the first man she’s loved since the death of her fiance sixteen years ago at Passchendaele. But Arthur has responsibilities, Gilda is hiding a secret, Violet’s mother still finds fault, and the world continues to look at Violet with pity. Can she continue to carve out a life for herself on her own terms?
The world is designed for couples. Though the acceptability of who makes up a couple has changed since 1932, the reality is still the same. Violet is fighting against what society deems normal but which isn’t within her reach. Two million men “short” after the war, she has little hope of marriage unless she’s willing to settle for a man either wounded mentally or physically or one with extreme personal faults. Violet decides she won’t settle as some of her friends have done.
She’s also exhausted from clashing with her mother and finally sets out on her own – though this causes a dust-up with mother and upsets what her family expected of her. Life on her own is hard and she’s barely able to afford to eat but I found myself admiring Violet. She’s got gumption yet is also achingly vulnerable at times. On her own and surviving now, she knows she still faces struggles and uncertainty in the future. Maiden aunts are no more embraced then than they were over a hundred years previously and Violet worries. What will happen to her when she’s old? “A spinster’s uncertainty underlined everything she did.”
Violet’s determination to make something for the Cathedral, something that could bring comfort to others and would probably outlast her, a way to leave her mark for posterity, makes sense. I found the overall descriptions of the broderers’ work and meetings interesting though at times the minute details of the stitches dragged a bit. Still when I explored on the internet and saw some of the actual handiwork that the real Louisa Pesel and the women of the Guild made, it all came together and I marveled at the time and care spent making such beautiful things. The women of the story all seemed so real complete with their gossiping about their lives, silent examination of each other (Violet is right, women are much harder on each other than men are), and determination to maintain their hierarchy in the group.
The visions of Winchester Cathedral came alive and of course I had to search out more of those, too, as well as bell ringing of which I knew little. Now I can understand the meaning behind “ringing a peal” over someone! The story is grounded in life as these characters would have seen it with no unbelievable hints of what was, unfortunately, to come. The growing concerns about Germany are touched on but just a bit in terms of what would have been heard on the wireless or read in newspapers.
As for Violet’s decisions and actions, I had a feeling about what was going to happen and wasn’t far wrong. But Violet goes into her choice with open eyes and discovers some (what I consider) remarkable acceptance. The slight romance is bittersweet but also another thing that Violet shapes to her own needs. As I said, I could see it coming and don’t blame Violet for grasping some happiness but it drags down the ending a little. Arguing it from the other hand, in a way I was also glad that there wasn’t a fairy tale romance tacked on which would have negated all the struggles Violet conquered to make her own life.
I liked the story and the writing which slowly builds the world of Violet and the people around her. It moves gently, carefully almost like the stitching of the broderers as they create the cushions and other objects of beauty and use for the Cathedral that have, indeed, joined the carvings left by earlier craftsmen to lift up souls to God. A little bit more emphasis on Violet finding her inner strength and less on bell pulling would have made me happier. B-