- Book: A Single Thread
- Location: Winchester
- Author: Tracy Chevalier
Violet Speedwell is a woman in her later 30s who is trying to make her way in the world, at a time when women had very little freedom and when men were scarce following on from WW1, when so many had been killed. Her existence, as it was for many unmarried women, was pretty much hand-to-mouth, as women took jobs whilst waiting for a marriage proposal to knock on the door. If they didn’t come, what then?
Women were expected to care for their parents, they were not expected to go out much on their own. The rigours of society were such that women were stifled and had to adhere to norms imposed by a masculine hierarchy. Violet and her friends are, however, not going to remain sequestered in a humdrum lifestyle.
Having moved away from her über-critical mother in Southampton, Violet takes lodgings in Winchester with some other young women, a very formal set up watched over by redoubtable landlady Mrs Harvey. She also finds herself a typing job, working alongside O and Mo (Olive and Maureen) in an insurance company.
A serendipitous visit to Winchester Cathedral finds her spell bound by the work of the broderers, who are sewing beautiful designs onto kneelers and seat cushions to soften the hardness of the spiritual experience. After a few test runs and eagle-eyed evaluation of her handiwork, she is welcomed into the community and it becomes a regular part of her life. She meets Gilda and her friend Dorothy and forms a firm friendship. The broderers’ work is carried out under the watchful eye of Louisa Pesel, a real person in history.
She also meets bell ringer Arthur who regularly rings both at the Cathedral and in Nether Wallop but he is already married….
Circumstances lead her to choose to go on a walking holiday, once again something that is not quite proper for a young woman to do and she frightens herself witless when on a lonely stretch heading South she comes under the scrutiny of a ne’er do well who dogs her life as she forges her way through constraints, just trying to live her life.
This is a wonderful, gentle novel that takes the reader back to an era of stoic hardship and repressive manners. Violet as a person is beautifully formed and I certainly rooted for her to cleave her way through these tough times. It started off fairly slowly which may lose some readers, but I found it engrossing to follow Violet’s life. I really wanted to know how things would turn out for her. You will learn much – and delightful learning it is too – about needlework and bell ringing and discover more about fylfots and Thomas Thetcher’s grave (who died of a violent fever contracted by drinking small beer when hot… in 1764).
As always, the author’s writing is eloquent, engaging and wonderfully observant of era and place, with tension and humour making this a very rounded and satisfying read. The author first came to my attention with Girl with the Pearl Earring which wonderfully evoked Delft in the 17th Century.
The author also shares with her readers at the end, that Keith Bain bought the privilege of having a character named after him (in the novel he is a friend of Arthur’s) at an auction to raise funds for Freedom From Torture.