Monday, October 18, 2021

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

A Single Thread
It is 1932, England and all of Europe is still under the cloud of World War I. So many men died in the war that there are thousands upon thousands of young widows or unmarried ‘spinsters’ who are dubbed ‘surplus woman', woman who will be unlikely to marry or have children. Violet Speedwell is one such woman; at thirty-eight, she has lost both her older brother and her finance, Laurence. Violet’s mother is inconsolable over the death of her oldest son, and is super-critical of her daughter, so much so that she makes Violet’s life miserable, and Violet longs to get away from her home and town where she feels suffocated by the life of caring for her aging mother.

When Violet spots an ad for a typist in a nearby town, she applies, and immediately accepts the low-paying job when it is offered. 

When it became clear that Mrs. Speedwell was not going to see her off as she normally did, watching from the doorway until visitors were out of sight, Violet went over and kissed her on the forehead. “Good-bye, Mother” she murmured. “I’ll see you next Sunday.”

Mrs. Speedwell sniffed,. “Don’t bother. I may be dead by then.”

And thus Violet begins her new life, living in a boardinghouse with other young women and working long hours typing forms for an insurance company. Excited by the new freedom, she puts up with meals of sardines on toast or beans on toast. 

She took herself to the cinema every week—her one indulgence, which she paid for by going without a meal that day. 

Her life is dreary and lonely until one day she goes to the grand cathedral in Winchester and happens onto a particular service, one filled with mostly older  women. She is not at the church to pray, ”prayers had died in the war alongside George and Laurence and a nation full of young men.”

It turns out to be a special mass for broderers, i.e. women who embroider seat cushions and kneelers  for the hard wooden benches of the cathedral. At first blocked from entering the group, she persists and eventually is allowed to be a part of the group. An so begins a new and much less socially impoverished  life as she befriends other broderers and comes under the very kind tutelage of Miss  Pesel, one of two women in charge of the group of women.

When I picked up this novel, I knew nothing of spinning, weaving, crocheting , or embroidering, but I was fascinated by the descriptions and by the friendships between the women. Although Violet has had very limited introduction to needlework, she quickly takes to it under the watchful eye of Miss Pesel. She also becomes friends with an older man, Arthur, who is a bell-ringer for the cathedral. Arthur is married to a woman who is frail and ailing, unable to recover from the loss of her son in the war.

In order to be allowed to attend the daytime broderers meetings, Violet comes up with a plan to improve efficiency in the insurance office  such that it will allow both she and Olive, the other typist to attend the meetings.

“But, Miss Speedwell, I  shall say this  idea came from me, if you don’t mind,” he added with a frown. “I can’t think what management would say about a girl having such a idea”

The author, Chevalier, has such a wonderful ear for the nuances and prejudices of this time in a Europe decimated by one war and on the eve of another. 

Violet decides on a walking tour in the country in place of the holidays of the past spent with her mother and younger brother and his family. She has a frightening encounter with a man she calls the corn man, having met him in a cornfield and then followed by him. Having walked to Sthe small town where Arthur lives, she confides in him about the scare she has had. “ He frightened you?”

“Yes” Arthur looked at her waiting.

“It’s not easy being a woman on your your own,” Violet explained after a moment. “No one expects it, though there are plenty of us. The ‘surplus women’. One would think it would not be such a surprise to see a woman walk through a field, or have a cup of tea in a pub.”

This is such a lovely little novel; I didn’t expect to be so intrigued by it, reading it as a kind  of respite from two rather heavy novels, but by the end, I knew I had to call it to the attention of other readers.

Among the broderers, Violet becomes a special friend of Gilda, and Gilda seems to light up when yet another woman, DJ, Dorothy, shows up at meetings. 

When Gilda appeared—out of breath and shouting hello—DJ started,  and suddenly solidified, as if outlined by solid black. She did not stop smiling, but her eyes drifted toward the corner of the room as if to dodge attention. Gilda too seemed out of sorts, looking everywhere but at DJ, and laughing a little too brightly as she removed her cloche...Violet discovered that there was something to discover, though she did not yet understand what it was.

Only Violet and eventually Miss Pesel accept the relationship between the two women.

There was something around them that made them seem closer than others, although they were not actually standing closer or even looking at each other. It was like an invisible fence, penning them together.

“That’s what can happen when you’re a spinster.”

It was said quietly, behind Violet, one woman to another. There was sarcasm in the words and a harshness, and something like fear.. 

Violet comes to see just how lovely and natural the relationship between Gilda and DJ is, opening her eyes to new possibilities. 

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