A Single Thread: A Novel
“Peopled with strong female characters, A Single Thread is a tribute to those women who defied convention and dared to find happiness in a world that had nothing left to offer them.”
Violet Speedwell is a spinster. She is a member of the so-called “surplus women,” the consequence of mass casualties in World War I. Defying her harsh, overbearing mother and custom, she leaves home to begin a new life on her own. But the life she has chosen is difficult. Unable to afford even a hot meal every day, Violet is alone in a new town and without friends.
One day she happens to wander into Winchester Cathedral while they are dedicating kneelers, beautiful creations made by women who embroider them. Fascinated by the beauty and craftsmanship, she finds herself drawn into the circle of women known as broderers. With something to take her mind off her loneliness and poverty, she finds a sort of peace in the process of creation.
And she makes friends and finds a community. Violet is soon befriended by a young woman named Gilda. Violet and Gilda begin to spend time together and Gilda introduces Violet to the cathedral bell ringers, Arthur and Keith. While Keith expresses some interest in Violet, it is Arthur who attracts her. Easy to talk to and steady, there seems to be an immediate attachment between them like an “invisible chord.” The only problem is Arthur is married.
More caretaker than husband, Arthur explains the effect of losing his only son in World War I and how that destroyed his wife. Violet, who lost both a brother and a fiancé, understands this devastation, and they are further bonded in this connection of grief.
Both Arthur and Violet are able to find solace in taking chaos and creating beauty from it. Violet, with her needle and thread takes a bundle of wool and turns it into something beautiful, and Arthur takes a seeming cacophony of bell tones and turns them into a moving and beautiful call.
But creation is difficult. It takes practice, sacrifice, and patience, and Violet realizes relationships require these same disciplines. With Arthur’s help, she is able to understand better the pain her mother has endured. This understanding helps her to create a truce with her mother and, with this understanding, both women are able to move on and plan for their perspective futures. Violet is also able to find the courage to help Gilda when her friend is in need in spite of the great personal sacrifice she is aware it will cost her.
Although Violet realizes she is stronger than she imagined, her future is likely to remain uncertain. She is alone, and for a single woman there are always dangers. There is the mysterious man in the corn field whose presence is felt more than seen, there is an uncertain future where one day she will have to rely on her younger brother for her care, and the presence of her, and many like her, is something that society has not yet learned to reckon with.
Blended throughout the narrative is the tenuous position of a single woman of the era. In a time when nothing can be as it always was, Violet Speedwell learns to draw upon resources she did not realize she possessed. She is able to embark upon a life, not exactly of independence, but of her own choosing.
In A Single Thread, author Tracy Chevalier creates a beautiful and engrossing narrative. She lovingly describes the craftsmanship that went into making the beautiful kneelers that are still in use at the Winchester Cathedral today. With an effortless blend of truth and fiction, she develops characters that are flawed, fascinating, and endearing.
A Single Thread is, at its heart, a story of creation. It is a tale of creating kneelers out of thread, and melodies out of bell tones. But more importantly it is also about creating community in the midst of loss and the importance of lasting friendships. Peopled with strong female characters, A Single Thread is a tribute to those women who defied convention and dared to find happiness in a world that had nothing left to offer them.