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.
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.