A Single Thread: The New Novel by Tracy Chevalier
Set in 1932, this book inspires to think about up-to-date issues.
Written by Dr Birgitta Huse, 02.09.2019
Photography by Dr Birgitta Huse
“So many people had unknown stories lurking […]”, Violet Speedwell resumes in the last chapter of the novel. We get to understand how true this is while we are absorbed more and more into Violet Speedwell's life and learn who and what surrounds her in Winchester, Southampton and other places in Hampshire. Violet Speedwell is the protagonist of Tracy Chevalier’s new novel that will be arriving in the UK on 5 September 2019 (in the USA 17 September 2019 and in European countries in 2020). Violet Speedwell is also the name of a plant which was highly esteemed as natural medicine in the Middle Ages. Following traditional popular belief, speedwell is associated with the following characteristics: it is said to opens our minds, enabling us to connect better to our feelings and helping to find the courage to say ‘no’ to something. Thus, if we are familiar with these beliefs, we already get a taste of what is to come in the novel.
Tracy Chevalier, bestselling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, reveals the atmosphere in the historic city of Winchester insightfully and precisely with every page. Though the story is set in 1932, we recognise one particularly strong landmark that is an important part of life in Winchester until today: Winchester Cathedral. I suppose that this building has a lasting impression on anyone visiting. Especially if we are receptive to art we find a rich array of treasures in the cathedral, from stained glasswork to wood carvings and textiles, to name just a few. The many stories behind the varied objects make it even more interesting.
Tracy Chevalier has chosen to give the textiles a central role in her novel. Her choice is more than adequate as it opens a fitting door for a female protagonist to enter the stage of Winchester life, which can be seen as a textile consisting of different (human) threads woven together. Violet Speedwell, a single woman who left her mother’s house in Southampton and now works in an office in Winchester, stumbles into her new life. Visiting the cathedral, she happens to come across a function of the Broderers, a group of embroidering women led by Louisa Pesel – a woman who really existed. Beginning in 1932, the Broderers are producing new cushions and kneelers for the cathedral with special designs and motifs. Dedicated to their work for the cathedral, they are a group with clear rules, not only with regards to their needlework. After some initial difficulties, Violet Speedwell manages to join the Broderers and to make friends. However, life is not easy for a single woman. People are suspicious, they feel threatened by a woman who does not live the way societal conventions expect her to. Tracy Chevalier portraits many different views of the restricted sphere of life, filled with expectations of others that women had to cope with in comparison to the many possibilities taken for granted for men. Though being absorbed by the story of Violet Speedwell we notice the disturbing timeliness of some themes like physical violence against women, especially when outside alone and at night, women entering a pub on their own or the situation of far too many women being torn between their job and family duties like ‘taking care’ of husband, children and ageing parents.
Tracy Chevalier does not only write about a traditional female world, but rather she shines light on the essential differences between men’s and women’s worlds about nearly a century ago in the Hampshire setting of her story.
Whoever has visited Winchester on a Wednesday evening has heard the cathedral bells ringing for about an hour, probably without knowing much about it. In A Single Thread the bell ringers represent a men’s world, high up in the bell ringing tower – women usually not allowed – and other special rules and customs. Tracy Chevalier introduces details about this art to us in such a compelling way that we will listen very differently to the next bell ringing we hear.
Altogether we witness Violet Speedwell balancing her own position in and between two worlds with all sorts of conventional thoughts, others’ but also her own, throughout the novel. Before the very last chapter commences, we read: “Now it begins, she thought. Now I begin.” The very end of the novel culminates in the biggest surprise by far. Naturally, you will have to find out about this reading for yourselves.
To sum up, I had a really pleasant reading experience, at the same time being inspired to think about still up-to-date issues regarding the society and the culture I live in. I learned a lot of very interesting details about the cathedral and the people engaging in daily cathedral business that I did not know before, though having visited Winchester Cathedral a lot of times before. I really like the fact that Tracy Chevalier and her respective characters remind us again and again, but not at all too obtrusively, of being mindful. For example, the value of handiwork of different kind, engaging in and/or watching it, is clearly stated, as well as the benefit of walking in nature if we know how to appreciate it. Flowers play a prominent role in the story. Firstly, they appear as names that fit well with those named after them, a striking example being Violet Speedwell, as mentioned above. Secondly, descriptions of flowers appear throughout the novel whenever they help to imagine a particular atmosphere. Another surprising result of my reading, one that I would never have expected, was a revival of my Latin language skills from school times. Without wanting to sound hasty, I dare say I could very well see A Single Thread as a film on the cinema screen.
A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier, HarperCollinsPublishers, London, 2019, HB ISBN: 978-0-00-815381-6