A Single Thread
A Single Thread is a different sort of love story – the story of a woman’s love for the peace of a cathedral and the order of religion in a world filled with bloodshed and violence.
Thirty-seven year old Violet Speedwell is a so-called ‘surplus woman’. Left behind by the wracking cost of World War I, her fiancé lost in the Battle of Passchendaele and her beloved brother dead on another battlefield, her plans for the future have been nullified. The subsequent passing of her father is the last straw. Limited socially by her lack of marital prospects, life threatens to transform itself into one long afternoon tea consumed beside her impossible mother between secretarial jobs, but Violet has too much curiosity about the world to settle for that. Refusing to live a lesser existence, she saves her typist pool money and moves into a boarding house in Winchester.
Violet – long fascinated with the church and searching for a sense of usefulness and immortality – soon finds herself becoming a part of the broderers, who embroider elaborate kneelers and cushions for the cathedral. While it’s initially tough going socially for her to be accepted into their sisterhood, Violet has the necessary talent, and after some lessons, soon begins to fit in. She even makes a close friend in the spirited social butterfly Gilda, who harbors a secret that could ruin her in the eyes of the church, and begins to develop a crush on Arthur Knight, a married church bell-ringer with an invalid wife.
But Violet’s happiness is soon threatened by the looming horror of World War II, and her mother’s increasing physical infirmity is becoming a worry. With Gilda’s secret to protect, Violet hoping to keep her path to independence fully intact and a stalker on her back to boot, there are storm clouds on the horizon that Violet may not be able to weather.
As I said in my introduction, this is the story of love – between a woman and a church. Oh, Violet does love Arthur – in an impossible way, due to his being married, and this book contains the most erotically charged bell-ringing scene you’ll ever read in your life. But her true love is the cathedral and its people and rituals. Arthur – in spite of her intensity about him and the depth of her love – almost feels beside Violet’s point.
As always in a Chevalier novel, the supporting characters make the story. I enjoyed the tough-as-nails and bossy Mrs. Humphrey Biggins, wonderful lively Gilda, and the handsome, philosophical Arthur. There is even Miss Louisa Pesel, who runs the embroidery course Violet takes and who is based on the real women who designed the pattern on the cushions in Winchester Cathedral.
But the book – which has its characters flout conventions, even though in some cases it’s very hard for them socially – doesn’t really dare to question the Church of England’s position on homosexuality, or its position on out of wedlock motherhood in the late 1930s. The characters’ lives are driven by the church, by its daily rituals, by the act of leaving and giving tributes to the bishop and priests who live and work there, but aside from heavy exploration of the church’s ceremonies and the peace they bring, the negative side of its doctrines are not questioned or addressed.
Yet otherwise Chevalier’s study of post-World War I/just-Pre World War II Winchester is well-executed and fascinating, feeling damp and chilly and realistically downtrodden. Even though it sometimes gets a little dull with its extreme detailing, it’s easy enough to disappear into Violet’s world.
A Single Thread is a fascinating if imperfect look at a kind of life long past gone. The broderers, however, still sew on in Winchester. And long may they ever do so.