A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

A Single Thread is a charming read.  It is a book I would happily read again

I have read all of Tracy Chevalier’s earlier books. (Girl with a Pearl Earring is a perennial favourite.)  But as can happen, I’ve gradually lost touch with her later books – always intending to catch up and never quite managing it.  Her latest book, A Single Thread, is my first foray into reading through The Pigeonhole – a new experience in itself – and at last, a return to this popular author.  It didn’t disappoint.

Image result for a single thread

A Single Thread opens in 1932 as Violet Speedwell comes across a service in progress in Winchester Cathedral.  Violet is one of the ‘surplus women’ – the generation of women, unmarried as a result of the countless men lost in the Great War.  She is now aged 38 and lost one of her brothers and her fiancé to the war.  Destined to live out her days alongside her querulous mother, Violet has finally decided to break free and has moved from the family home in Southampton to take a room in Winchester.  She gained a transfer in her job and a modicum of independence, together with the permanent disapproval and resentment of her mother, a subsistence lifestyle and an overwhelming loneliness.

The service which she manages to sneak into is a service of dedication for the cushions and kneelers being made by the cathedral broderers: a group of women focused on a mammoth project to create enough of both to fill the pews of the cathedral.  Violet has never stitched such an object but the cathedral has begun to soothe her loneliness and her losses and she feels a strong need to create a piece of her own: to be placed in the cathedral where it will remain long after she has gone.  Her own small legacy.

“But—” Violet hesitated, wondering how to explain to this overbearing woman that she wanted to make a kneeler – one that kept knees from aching during prayers and that she could look out for specially in the Cathedral presbytery. One that might last long after she was dead. Over the centuries others had carved heads into the choir stalls, or sculpted elaborate figures of saints from marble, or designed sturdy, memorable columns and arches, or fitted together coloured glass for the windows: all glorious additions to a building whose existence was meant to make you raise your eyes to Heaven to thank God. Violet wanted to do what they had done. She was unlikely to have children now, so if she was to make a mark on the world, she would have to do so in another way. A kneeler was a stupid, tiny gesture, but there it was. “I would like to make a kneeler for the Cathedral,” she finally said in a small voice, then hated herself for it.

Slowly Violet finds friendship and purpose through the broderers.  She also meets two gentlemen bellringers and a tentative friendship evolves between Violet and Arthur, one of these ringers.  But Arthur is married…

A Single Thread is a quiet, easy read, strangely comforting despite its foreshadowing of the coming war.  It highlights the plight of countless young women in the thirties; a group I have not really thought about before.  It covers issues still relevant today – caring for the old and for the mentally ill, same sex relationships, the plight of women – and highlights universals such as loyalty, obligations, the dichotomy between freedom to live one’s life and the constraints and expectations of society.  This against the cathedral backdrop and some fascinating information about embroidery and bellringing.

Like most smaller services, Evensong was held in the choir. The choir boys with their scrubbed, mischievous faces sat in one set of stall benches, the congregants in the other, with any overflow in the adjacent presbytery seats. Violet suspected Evensong was considered frivolous by regular church goers compared to Sunday morning services, but she preferred the lighter touch of music to the booming organ, and the shorter, simpler sermon to the hectoring morning one. She did not pray or listen to the prayers – prayers had died in the War alongside George and Laurence and a nation full of young men. But when she sat in the choir stalls, she liked to study the carved oak arches overhead, decorated with leaves and flowers and animals and even a Green Man whose moustache turned into abundant foliage. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the looming enormity of the nave, but sitting here with the boys’ ethereal voices around her, she felt safe from the void that at times threatened to overwhelm her. Sometimes, quietly and unostentatiously, she cried.

This is not a book filled with action and suspense.   The main characters, Violet and Arthur, felt real and rounded but others – in particular Violet’s mother; Mrs Biggins, the leader of the borderer group and Jack Wells, the requisite ‘shady’ character – were too strongly caricatured.  The ending was perhaps predictable and a little too tidy.  Nonetheless, I found it absorbing (and would like to see a sequel but Tracy has said that is very unlikely).  I was quickly invested in Violet’s struggle to create a life for herself on her own terms and I enjoyed the setting and the period, particularly experiencing it from the perspective of a group I’ve not encountered in other books.  Reading through The Pigeonhole brought added bonuses in the form of additional information and photographs provided by Tracy: images of the area, the bells and the kneelers stitched by the women of the era – still in use now.  I also learned that one of the characters, Louisa Pesel, was a real person; I’m looking forward to learning more about her!

A Single Thread is a charming read.  It is a book I would happily read again – perhaps when I’ve caught up on Chevalier’s back catalogue!  So from here, it’s time to decide on my next Chevalier read.  And if anyone has suggestions for other reads about the ‘surplus women’ I’d be happy to hear them.

45 thoughts on “A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier”

  1. Ooh this sounds great. I haven’t read any Chevalier for ages and have ordered a library copy (queue number 51 lol!). Meanwhile, how are you finding The Pigeon Hole? I had not heard of it before.

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    1. I think you would enjoy this, Liz. I’m just about to finish The Fortnight in September which I know you enjoyed and the two books have similarities in tone. As for The Pigeonhole, I’ve read two books ‘live’ now with another lined up (which I have less high hopes for). I think it’s great. Firstly a chance to read new releases for free – they hope you will review somewhere of course (not necessarily on a blog) but I don’t think you’re barred from future reads if you don’t review. There is the community aspect which can be fun and the interraction with the author – at least with Chevalier – which certainly adds to the experience. There’s also the option to create private groups to read with friends etc. I’m tempted by that. Ha – rather more information than you needed! In short, I am enjoying it and can recommend it! 🤗

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  2. I’ve read some of Tracy Chevalier’s books and enjoyed them very much. I have a copy of this one waiting to be read so I am so glad you enjoyed it so much. I am now looking forward even more than I was before to reading it – a lovely post! I haven’t read this, but Virginia Nicholson has written a book about the ‘surplus women’ of the thirties – Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War. It sounds good.

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  3. Sorry I’d better write another comment – I’m so glad you enjoyed this so much – I have a copy waiting to be read, and am looking forward to reading it especially after reading your lovely post! I haven’t got Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson but it looks good – it’s subtitled ‘How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War’.

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  4. This sounds fascinating, Sandra – and even if there’s not much action, it sounds as though it covers a lot of different issues and themes. I have a copy which I’m hoping to start reading soon and am looking forward to it now!

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    1. I’ll watch for your thoughts on it, Helen. It’s not a ‘deep’ exploration of the issues but I found it interesting to compare then and now. I hope you enjoy it 😊

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  5. That is a charming thread about A Single Thread. You have managed to import the tension of the book into your overview, along with the predicament of the lot such as the central character in trying times.

    Querulous mothers can at times prove to be more than a lone bird can handle.

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    1. Oh the mother is ghastly in this book, Uma! A little over the top I think. But balanced with explanations for her behaviour. It was an enjoyable read 😊

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  6. I’m a big Chevalier fan, though so far haven’t read this one. It astonishes me that she can bring history from so many different places and periods to life: I always feel authentically ‘there’. Only a few weeks ago I read At the Edge of the Orchard, set in pioneering days in America. This too features some ‘real’ characters. Recommended.

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    1. I agree, Margaret; she has covered so many periods and aspects of past society, often quite small aspects of it too. At the Edge of the Orchard is one I might pick up next. It attracts me despite reading a few negatives about it so I’m encouraged by your exerience of it, thank you 😊

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  7. Very thoughtful and thought provoking ,Sandra, as usual. I have only read Pearl Earring by this author as far as I can recall. I don’t remember being impressed! I have a scrap book which my great aunt kept during the Great War- her fiancée was killed and she remained unmarried and died in her late 90s. Her great sorrow was that she never held her own baby. The book is so poignant- it is filled with pictures, postcards, poetry. A lot of the drawings have been coloured by her. It’s so difficult to imagine what life was like for these almost forgotten women. Her sister , who didn’t have a sweet heart , became a professional musician and I think played in the Halle Orchestra for a time, so her life was fulfilled. xxx

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    1. I loved ‘Earring’, Pat, but I can see that it may not be for you. And I doubt that this one is either. Too ‘quiet’ and even paced perhaps and not particularly lyrical.

      Thank you for sharing the stories of your great aunt and her sister. What a treasure you have in that scrapbook. I am intrigued by these women now and heartened by the sister in your account who certainly sounds like she found a calling and fulfillment. A book has been recommended to me (earlier in this thread of comments) which I shall certainly read and which might be of interest to you too 😊

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    1. Kerry, there’s a lot of detail about the stitches, colours, patterns and so on. And the kneelers are still in use. Definitely worth you taking a look I think!

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  8. I haven’t read about these surplus women either, but it does sound like an interesting angle to the post war period. To be honest, I haven’t read anything by Tracy Chevalier either. At some point I will probably try Girl with a Pearl Earring. Generally, I enjoy reading about art and artists. The Pigeonhole is new to me. Not sure the format would suit me, but free books always sound good 😀

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    1. I wondered about the format but I’ve found it works well for me so far at least. And I’ve read two books that I wouldn’t have read without using existing reading time which is always good 😊

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  9. I’ve also lost touch with Chevalier after loving her early works (Falling Angels remains one of my favorites.) Maybe I’ll take a cue from your review and pick up A Single Thread! Thanks for the post!

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  10. This isn’t usually my kind of read but I’m attracted by the stuff about embroidery and tapestry, being a bit of an amateur needlewoman myself. The book that always sticks out to me as “surplus woman” material is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – another woman who lost her love in WW1. I always wonder how she’d have turned out if he’d come home – I suspect she would have found marriage and motherhood very restrictive…

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    1. Ah, I had thought about Miss Brodie, thank you FF 😊 I’ve seen the film of course, and started reading the book last year but something got in the way – was it the book or was it other circumstances? Can’t remember! 😂 But I do intend to get back to it and it will be a different experience reading it from this angle. It adds background to her intense desire to make her girls the best they can be.

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    1. I am finding it worthwhile, Elizabeth. It’s really just a digital platform for reading new books for free. Having signed up, the books are delivered in daily instalments. One can interact with other readers or not. There is the hope that having read the book readers will post reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, whatever. I know some books are avialble in America, not sure how many. Older books can be read at any time and there’s an option to create a ‘private’ group to read a given book with friends. I haven’t tried that yet. It won’t be everyone but it’s giving me access to new books I would otherwise probably not get around to reading.

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  11. I had not heard the phrase ‘surplus women’ in the context of the aftermath of the 1st World War before. What a curious and disturbing way of characterizing these survivors and victims of war many of whom were so cruelly bereaved.
    Thanks for alerting me to the Pigeon Hole – I will be looking into it.

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    1. It is a sad and disturbing phrase, Carol. So many women who were unable to marry at a time when marriage was still regarded as de rigeur for all women. I intend reading more about this group of ladies, a good many of whom went on to forge strong lives for themselves I’m sure, alongside those who through temperament and or circumstances were required to remain single and unfulfilled in life and love.

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  12. Lovely review, Sandra. Thanks for introducing this book to me. I hear you about liking a bit so much you would read it again.
    I often do. But I recently read a book twice – by audio — and it spoiled other books for me for a while! Some authors write so well, I marvel at them.

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        1. Cynthia, I had never come across Pat Conroy before – thank you for introducing me to him. I’ve downloaded a sample of this one and look forward to reading more than the snippet I’ve just seen. It does sound wonderful!

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