A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier: “a tale of petit point”

My mother used to speak of her “maiden aunts” who were never able to marry because of the dearth of single men after the First World War. Violet Speedwell is such a “surplus woman”, her loneliness compounded by poverty. To gain independence from her widowed mother, embittered by the loss of her elder son, and constantly carping, Violet moves to nearby Salisbury, where after paying rent, her wages are insufficient to buy a hot meal every day and replace outworn clothes. She finds distraction in the unlikely company of broderers, women who have volunteered to decorate colourful kneelers and cushions for the Cathedral, and in the friendship of Arthur, a man old enough to be her father, with a passion for bell ringing, but also a wife who is yet another woman traumatised by her son’s death on a French battlefield.

Plots are often padded out with some specialism which readers are likely to know little about, but find interesting. In this case, the themes are embroidery and bell ringing, both of which the author has thoroughly researched. The former has the ring of truth, being based on the actual project undertaken in the 1930s, under the direction of the real-life Louise Pesel, who appears in the novel, using her striking designs for scenes from English history.

With painstaking attention to detail, Tracy Chevalier recreates the staid, dull, conventional world of the 1930s, as it appears to us now, bringing it alive with moments of poignancy and wry humour. It is a world where women are not supposed to have careers, nor hike round the countryside on their own, and their mere presence, if alone, seems to make others uncomfortable. If they fail to marry, they are expected to be carers when the need arises. Some may say that this state of affairs has far from disappeared.

This is an easy read which could promote discussion in a book group, but I found it rather dull, with the research too often shoehorned clunkily into wooden descriptions and stilted dialogues, stereotyped characters, and a somewhat thin plot relying on too many coincidences and contrived situations. I was also unconvinced that a woman like Violet would in the past have gone to bars to meet “sherry men” with whom to have brief sexual encounters, although I could understand why the tedium of living with her mother might drive her to drink.

My reservations may be unfair, since this novel seems to have been generally well-received.

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