Review Blog

Nov 28 2019

A single thread by Tracy Chevalier

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HarperCollins, 2019. ISBN: 9780008153823.
(Age: Senior secondary - Adult) Highly recommended. It is 1932 and Violet Speedwell, whose fiance and brother were killed in the Great War, has become a 'surplus woman', doomed to be a spinster because of the demise of a generation of young men. In an effort to become independent she leaves her family home and goes to Winchester where she joins a society of broderers who are embroidering kneelers and cushions for Winchester Cathedral. It is here that she makes friends and begins to make a new life.
I am a great fan of Tracy Chevalier's stories and her wonderful ability to describe the lives of women, while giving a snapshot of the history of the time. In A single thread, Chevalier weaves the story of how the fictional Violet becomes independent, twining it with the real life of Louisa Pesel, who was asked to design the cushions and runners that can still be seen in the Cathedral today. The group of broderers becomes Violet's mainstay, fending off loneliness with the friendship of Gilda and Dorothy and the calm helpfulness of Louisa Pesel.
I loved the descriptions of the embroidery and was fascinated to learn of the fylfots that were a border on the vestments of the effigy of 14th century Bishop Wodeloke, and how the Nazis took the fylfot symbol as their own swastika. Chevalier writes about Louisa Pesel and embroidery on the author's website.
The details of the art of bell ringing were so graphic that a reader could almost hear the bells pealing. And it was the understated way that Chevalier describes how women were treated in the 1930's that is most poignant and memorable, as she tells of the struggle of Violet to find love and make a family of her own and of Gilda and Dorothy's love for each other. Family life and the loss of a child and the devastation it leaves behind are also described in a very moving way.
A quote from Geraldine Brooks on the back cover sums it up: 'Chevalier is a master at foregrounding the small, dramatic stories of overlooked people from the past.' An interview with Chevalier is available on the NPR website.
This is a gentle and engrossing novel that nevertheless touches on complex themes, that of women's sexuality, the plight of the unmarried mother and the importance and difficulties of family life. It is one too that celebrates the beauty of Winchester Cathedral's embroidered cushions and runners and the talent of the women artists who designed and made them.
Pat Pledger

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