Sunday 22 September 2019

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier: An absorbing look at the life of a 1930s spinster

Fiction: A Single Thread

Tracy Chevalier

Borough Press, hardback, 328 pages, €16.99

Fact with a fertile imagination: A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier centres on the life of a spinster in the 1930s. Photo by Leonardo Cendamo
Fact with a fertile imagination: A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier centres on the life of a spinster in the 1930s. Photo by Leonardo Cendamo
A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

It's been two decades since the release of Tracy Chevalier's career-making bestseller Girl With a Pearl Earring, and her literary output has been impressively steady since then.

With every passing work, she has established herself as a doyenne of the historical novel, famed for her unsparing attention to detail.

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And just as she took Vermeer's famous painting, the death of Queen Victoria (Falling Angels) or the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries (The Lady and the Unicorn) as jumping off points for previous work, here she combines historical fact with fertile imagination and uses Louisa Pesel as the nucleus for her post-World War One tale.

Pesel, a scholar and embroiderer who gave lectures on embroidery stitching at the V&A in London before her death in 1947, is however a peripheral figure in A Single Thread.

Rather, the story centres on Violet Speedwell, a 38-year-old who effectively is assigned the burden of spinsterhood after her fiancé dies in the Great War, 14 years previously. It seems that her role in life has been mapped out for her: to care for her mother, who also lost a son in the war.

Her status as a 'surplus woman' singles her out as a figure of pity and derision, and limits many options in life.

Violet may look unremarkable and unglamorous (by her own admission), but there's clearly a glimmer of autonomy and ambition there.

She moves out from under her overbearing, constantly complaining mother and into the sleepy, beautiful cathedral city of Winchester.

Her new life in an insurance company typing pool is, on the face of it, humble and predictable. Her landlady, Mrs Harvey, is predictably meddlesome and nosy. She doesn't rub along especially well with her glamorous colleagues (brides-in-waiting, essentially) at the typing pool.

Almost immediately, the city's broderers - embroider kneelers who create intricate works for local worshippers - come to Violet's attention.

She forms a bond with the community of broderers - among them, the aforesaid Pesel - and with sparky Gilda in particular. Their stunning creations seem to be a colourful, intricate foil to the austere, hollowed-out society around them.

As she settles into the community and attempts to build a life on her own terms, Violet also sparks up a kinship with Arthur, a married bellringer in his sixties at the cathedral. He, too, has known loss, and his marriage has suffered after he and his wife lost a son in the war.

Winchester may be new to Violet, yet as she soon discovers, it's still a small city with its own parochial ways, prejudices and gossips.

All the while, and as Violet is growing in confidence with her needlepoint craft, the spectre of another world war looms large. A personal calamity, too, threatens to upend her new-found happiness and freedom.

Chevalier is, just as she has always been, a fan of the meandering journey rather than the destination, and goes into immersive - nay, eye-watering - detail on embroidery and bellringing.

By the book's end, Chevalier cites no fewer than six reference books on bellringing alone, and thanks Winchester's current crop of broderers and bellringers for answering her many questions ("Bellringing is a complicated business," she acknowledges).

As passages go, these may not be everyone's cup of Bovril, but the lyricism and passion with which Chevalier writes about both is really worth the admission price alone.

The vivid descriptions of a British society in between wars, not to mention the argot of 1930s Britain, allow the reader to plunge into Violet's world from the off.

It all slows the plot and narrative down significantly - the first third of the book is particularly languid and in need of some horsepower - but this is rarely cause for concern with a Chevalier work.

Violet is a formidably drawn character - strong, determined, wilful, occasionally selfish in her pursuit of contentment - and she is the perfect navigator in the England that Chevalier has summoned to life.

There are nods to feminism, sexuality, the importance of female friendship, single motherhood; some feel broad, and a little didactic at times. Yet Chevalier's journey back in time is, for the most part, a pleasurable and almost soothing one.

Those who prefer their reads on the racier, plot-driven side may well find A Single Thread's meandering pace something of a slog.

But this has never been a quibble for Chevalier's many fans, who positively delight in her sonorous, gentle pacing.

Tempered by a nose for fine detail and a grasp on everyday life, A Single Thread is a soothing salve in a year where publishing potboilers and molasses-thick plots are a dime a dozen.

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