Review: Vivien Horler
A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier (The Borough Press/ Jonathan Ball)
The deaths of millions of young men in World War I meant a generation of young women was unable to marry and have children.
Society has changed so much since the early 1930s when this novel, by the author of the bestselling Girl with a Pear Earring, is set. We may think our world lacks kindness and tolerance today, but prejudice was rife in middle class England in 1932 and being a “spinster” was a challenge.
Violet Speedwell, born in the last years of the 19th century, loses both a brother and a fiance in the war. In her mid-30s at the start of this novel, she has moved away from her family home in Southampton, rejecting the expectation that as a single daughter it is her job to care for her widowed and cantankerous mother.
She works as a typist for an insurance company in Winchester, but her low wages mean many days go by when she can’t afford a hot meal. She lives in a boardinghouse with a landlady and several other “spinsters” in their 30s who spend their evenings in the parlour, listening to the wireless, and contributing to the landlady’s coal bill.
She hates the fact that every time she introduces herself to anyone they glance at her left hand to see if she has a husband.
With no experience in the craft, Violet joins a guild of embroiderers who are making hassocks and cushions for Westminster Cathedral, and acquires a mentor and a friend. She also meets Arthur, a cathedral bell ringer, an older man to whom she is strongly drawn. But Arthur has a wife.
Following a design given to her, Violet embroiders devices on to a cushion, a move challenged by Arthur, who pays attention to the news and is keenly aware of what is happening in Germany. Why is she embroidering swastikas, he demands. Upset, Violet approaches the designer who shows her versions of the symbol carved into stone in the cathedral. She says it is an ancient Sanskrit symbol and tells Violent: “The … sculptor used the symbol in all innocence. I have used it an as an act of subversion. A single thread can make quite a difference.”
Much of the narrative centres on the cathedral itself. Many people are drawn into the life of the church – the embroiderers, the bell ringers, the vergers, the flower arrangers, the Dean and of course the congregations, and Violet meets them all. She is not particularly religious, but warms to the beauty around her: the carved stonework, the ceiling bosses, the embroidery, the great old oak beams, and the fleeting delight of the bells.
The writer Penelope Lively once wrote an essay on what the Church of England meant to her, and this novel reminded me of her words: “I am an agnostic who relishes the equipment of Christianity: its mythologies, its buildings, its ceremonies, its music, the whole edifice without which ours would be a diminished world. I like to attend a service. I am a church-visiting addict, with cathedrals the ultimate indulgence.”
Chevalier describes a vanished England, a homogenous society recovering from one war and about to be plunged into another. It is a snapshot of a time that was about to be upended. Women in the Western world today certainly have a lot more independence, freedom and agency over their lives, and thank God for that.
This all sounds very serious – A Single Thread is also a delightful read.