A Single Thread

Tracy Chevalier’s new book A Single Thread is a bittersweet story about a young woman and the community she builds herself following the horrors of World War 1. Violet Speedwell loses her brother George and her fiance Laurence in the war and her father a few years later. Violet is one of the “surplus women” in England, meaning there were 2 million men less than women after the war. Societies throughout Europe had an entire generation of women who would not marry due to the men shortage. Societies did not know quite what to do with these women, therefore they had very little opportunities to build independent lives. Many became dependent upon their male family members. Violet simply could not tolerate living with her mother’s criticism and bitterness any more and moves herself to nearby Winchester, England. She takes a typing job in an insurance company which pays very little, as in her clothes hang on her because she doesn’t have enough money to eat. Dismal yes, but better than living with her mother. She lived in a boarding house of young women run by an older matron who was very strict about proper decorum. This was about as independent as a surplus woman could ever wish for in the 1930’s.

Violet stumbles upon the Winchester Cathedral’s embroidery guild while seeking solace in the cathedral. She is taken in by Louisa Pesel, who in real life was the head of this guild responsible for embroidering 300 kneelers and 56 cushions for the choir stalls. Violet learns to embroidery and makes good friends within this group. Incidentally, Winchester Cathedral is famous for its center stained glass window, it’s cushions and kneelers and it’s bell ringers.

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Violet’s love interest, Arthur, a delightful sensitive man is one of the Cathedral’s bell ringers. At this time in history, only men could ring the bells. The English tradition of rope and wheel “change ringing” started in the 16th century. The bells are tuned to a major scale, and the chimes are rung on a mathematical pattern of sequences or rounds of ascending or descending scales. The bells use wheels to circle all the way around which gives the ringer control in ringing the sequence. Cathedrals have either 10 or 12 bells, and they ring as a call to worship, a celebration or remembrance and can sometimes take several hours to work through all the sequences.

Chevalier visited the Cathedral about ten times while researching this book. She said she wanted “to absorb the atmosphere of the place”, which she truly did. I felt as if I was inside this marvelous place with its nooks and crannies. Chevalier is noted for her detailed atmospheric scenes. She writes like she is trying to make a movie scene. She said, “Readers respond to color and light and descriptions. And I like to give daily life its due respect and space.” She truly is gifted in this- she portrays the daily lives of all of her characters in such a poignant way. It is one of my favorite things about her books. She also learned to needlepoint so she could be accurate in describing the stitches and the importance of the thread tension. If you’ve ever needlepointed, you know what I’m talking about.

A nice book for a relaxing weekend, especially if you love England. You truly feel as if you are in the countryside surrounding Winchester Cathedral. Jane Austin and other notable people are buried here. Plus it’s the Cathedral where many of England’s kings were crowned or buried over the ages.