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A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier

29 November 2019

Peggy Woodford enjoys a novel about a woman embroiderer in the ’30s

TRACY CHEVALIER sets her novel in the cathedral city of Winchester in 1932. Violet Speedwell is a “surplus woman” as a result of the First World War, during which both her fiancé, Laurence, and her brother, George, were killed. The two young men who meant most to her are dead, and she knows that there are now two million more women than men in the UK as a result of the war’s carnage. (This forgotten and painful imbalance brought to mind my own long-dead spinster great-aunts who had lost their loved ones, and made Chevalier’s story specially poignant.)

Violet’s mother, Mrs Speedwell, is a splendidly ghastly creation, a “town crier of the family loss”, giving little room to the rest of the family to voice their feelings. There is no sympathy for Violet on the loss of her fiancé: Mrs Speedwell holds that the loss of a son is worse. Sympathy comes from the group of embroiderers which Violet joins, all working on hassocks for Winchester Cathedral.

This activity, plus the designs invented by the women, becomes one of two central themes of A Single Thread, and clearly, from Chevalier’s notes and bibliography, one that she has studied in depth.

One of the kneeeler designs invokes a swastika, while Hitler’s Germany is a growing danger on the horizon; Violet stares at the design of swastikas all over a 16th-century marble tomb in Winchester Cathedral and realises how ancient symbols can be permanently perverted.

© simon newman/winchester cathedralThe hassock in Winchester Cathedral bearing the Bishop Edington medallion, which includes a tiny swastika beneath the mitre

The other central theme is bell-ringing — and, of course, the bells of Winchester Cathedral are famous. The reader learns many fascinating things through Violet’s intense relationship with Arthur, one of the bell-ringers: for instance, that the English, unlike other countries, ring church bells in mathematical sequences rather than melodies, and in patterns, not tunes.

Their relationship is movingly described and fitting for the times, and, although there is no conventional happy ending, the result of that relationship is one that all readers will enjoy.

Peggy Woodford is a novelist.

A Single Thread
Tracy Chevalier
The Borough £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.49

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