A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier
“Her brother was gone, her fiancé was gone, God was gone. It took a long time for the gap to close, if it ever really did.” So, she had moved the 12 miles to Winchester to escape the memories and her mother’s insidious discontent.
Violet Speedwell is thirty-eight years old, a woman left behind, fighting to establish her place in a society that does not appreciate “surplus” women nor women who possess the effrontery to rebel against the status quo. It is 1932 England, and she must learn to cope with a new reality where women outnumber marriageable men by more than two million, thereby reducing their opportunity for marriage in a society that still defines a woman by her husband. Her fiancé and older brother had both been killed in the Great War, and her father succumbed to a heart attack. While the world careens toward another conflagration with the rise of the Nazis, she must somehow escape her mother’s poisonous grumbles. She finds a job as a typist for an insurance company which barely enables her to make ends meet until a volunteer job as a broderer at Winchester Cathedral helps her begin to establish a supportive community. Broderers were the women, part of a centuries-long tradition, who embroidered the seat cushions and kneeling pads in the great cathedrals.
Tracy Chevalier vividly captures a different time and place but reminds us that the same types of people exist regardless of place, and that creates the dramatic tension of A Single Thread. There is a mother who feels put upon. She is querulous and negative, set in her own ways, rude to her two remaining children and her grandchildren. Violet has bonded with her remaining brother over the deaths they have shared, but he is the married male with all that implies. He feels that he can make decisions for Violet. Add those familial tensions to those in the workplace where even getting sufficient heat through the winter reflects the cold attitude of the male supervisor. He hates to hire women since they are sure to leave for marriage or to take care of an aging parent.
Violet discovers the broderers and manages to find a place there, despite the “work dynamics” even there. She has come to Winchester “looking to start again, here.” So, becoming a broderer is about creating something where the vastness of the great cathedral and the emptiness of her life are overwhelming. “Spiritually as well as physically. I thought if there was one small part of me here, that might help.” She is befriended by Arthur, whose wife is “shell shocked” by the death of their son in the war, literally blown to bits by a shell. Will they become an item?
Tracy Chevalier is best known for her stunning Girl With a Pearl Earring. A Single Thread is sure to take its place along with Remarkable Creatures and Burning Bright for their equally well-told evocation of their times and characters. The breadth of time, place, and characters revealed in just these four examples amply illustrate Chevalier’s ability to weave the mundane facts of real life into the rich and varied lives of her fictional characters as she focuses on female friendship and support. Violet is a woman you will wish you had known.