Tracy Chevalier is a “must-read” author for me. I love her writing. This book sounded like one I’d truly love as well.
Winchester Cathedra (source)
“…I want to rebel meaningfully…not unconsciously.”
Violet Speedwell in A Single Thread
Violet is one of the many “surplus women”–those left by World War I without a husband. Tired of living with her overbearing mother, Violet takes a job transfer to Winchester to live on her own–a very daring thing in 1932. Her job as a typist barely lets her life, but she finds solace doing embroidery with a group at Winchester Cathedral (yes, the one in the annoying 1960’s song). She makes friends with a few women in the group and begins to make a life for herself. She also meets Arthur–an older man, not a rake, but a decent family man. He is a bellringer (big church bells, not handbells). They develop a relationship as well.
Overall, I truly liked the story. I liked the very real emotions Violet experienced in striving for independence. I liked that fish paste or cress sandwiches were endurable if she could go to the cinema! That was real and I could relate to it so much. She was pragmatic in meeting her needs, too, which was something I admired. Society may have said X, but she still did Y because she needed to.
I did find it predictable that two of the women were lesbians and thought the author was VERY heavy-handed in making us feel how unjust the discrimination against homosexuals was back then. I agree–it was. After all in Britain, until the late ’60s or early 1970s, at least men could be arrested and sent to prison! But the tone of the story was almost, dare I say, preachy? Like being lectured on how wrong all of the past was and how fabulously woke we must all become. That sort of tone. That I felt all of this was also a tribute to her tremendous skills as a writer and storyteller. (We had a smaller taste of this tone whenever Violet’s boss was in the story).
By contrast, though, a later event in Violet’s life [no spoilers] did not get anything like this level of emotion. That was odd to me. Like one was a tragedy of epic proportions and the other was “walk it off, already” level of pain though both were of an approximate level of emotion at least [sorry, I can’t say it more clearly without spoilers].
Having done some embroidery years ago, I found the discussion of the work to be interesting. (I also wished I could remember something about Winchester Cathedral from visiting it at age 15). I did not find the bell pulling activity quite as interesting as the author apparently did, however. I admit it did give me a much better picture of the activity than I’d gleaned years ago from Tristan in All Creatures Great and Small, but generous cuts could have been made to that part of the book.
Finally, I liked the way she portrayed her landlady and her family in their acceptance (or their ignoring) of certain people in the story.
A Single Thread: A Novel by Tracy Chevalier
The Real Embroidery of Winchester Cathedral
Image from Needleprint of a Winchester Cathedral embroidered kneeler cushion.
Model for the embroidery by Louisa Pesel. Credit for the image
Author’s Interview With NPR