Sunday, March 28, 2021

Weekend Review: A Single Thread


A Single Thread / Tracy Chevalier
NY: Viking, c2019.
321 p.

This is a novel full of details about canvaswork embroidery. Really! (note the cover design). But it's also a novel about a single woman in post war England -- a "surplus woman" trying to build her own life as a single working woman outside the traditional bounds of expected early marriage.

It's 1932, and 38 yr old Violet Speedwell has just moved out of her overbearing mother's house to the nearby town of Winchester, home of a great cathedral. She lost both her older brother and her fianc√© in the Great War, and has been caring for her mother ever since. But now she's had enough and finally manages a transfer to the Winchester office of the insurance company where she works as a typist. 

Winchester isn't far away, and she still visits her mother weekly. But she's also building her own life; living in a boarding house, penny pinching to eat and live, and discovering the Broderers group at the Cathedral by chance. Even though she's never been much of a needleworker, she joins in to help make kneelers and cushions for the Cathedral, to leave a trace of herself somewhere. This group of women also becomes her social group and support in many ways. There is much time in the novel devoted to explaining the designs, the actual stitches and colours, and the designer, the great Louisa Pesel, all based in the real embroidery history of Winchester Cathedral. 

At the Cathedral, Violet also meets a bell ringer, Arthur Knight, married and much older than she is. But there's a spark there. The novel explores the possibility of a relationship like that in this era, as well as showing other concerns that single women had to face, when Violet gains a stalker. This theme was a bit disturbing, and I'm not sure it was essential. If this character had been removed from the novel, the story wouldn't have lost anything, in my opinion. Reading this book over the past few weeks when so much violence against women was happening in our world, I found it particularly disturbing. 

The detail given to embroidery in this novel is also given to bell ringing, a particularly English occupation. This reminded me of Dorothy Sayers' The Nine Tailors, and just as in that book, I glazed over during the details of bell ringing technique. Perhaps others might do the same during the embroidery parts, but not me, and I hope not the readers at this blog! 

The book is well constructed, moving along a good clip, and bringing up so many concerns in a single woman's life. Dependency, the expectations to care for parents, money, companionship, meaning, children and lack of, social constrictions -- all were quite naturally enfolded into Violet's story. Some of her choices might not be the expected ones, or ones that a reader would choose on their own behalf, but she's a realistic and believable character nonetheless. The interplay between Violet and her brother and his family, and her mother, was delicately balanced and highlighted how Violet's life and her options differed from her sister-in-law's 'married with children' life trajectory. I found it an engaging read that I enjoyed overall. 


  1. Thank you for your review! I read this book just recently and really enjoyed it. It is a fascinating account of a time and and place most of us don’t know and/or think much about; knowing that this is only a pause between wars heightened the suspense for me, because I wondered what would become of these very believable characters in the tumult to come. I also wondered why the stalker was part of the storyline, he was pretty terrifying. Perhaps his character was meant to help underscore the vulnerability of a woman living on her own and, to the extent possible, on her own terms, and the courage it takes. These are very brave women, now overlooked as “surplus women,” coping with the enormous unexpected changes in their world while at the same time navigating the still present restrictions, demands, and expectations of society. I could also really identify with Violet’s search for joy in the needlework which she hopes will leave a mark on the world.

  2. I really agree with all of this. The embroidery was a way to leave a mark, and it was quite a meaningful symbol, I thought. (I also loved the character of Louisa Pesel)


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