Violet Speedwell seems an unlikely heroine at the opening of Tracy Chevalier’s A Single Thread. She’s moved 12 miles away from her overbearing mother to rent a small room and eke out a living as a typist for an insurance company. Friendless and penniless — she makes so little money that she’s literally starving — Violet’s life seems small and pitiful. Yet pity is the last thing Violet wants. She yearns to build a more meaningful life for herself — a task that’s far from straightforward for an unmarried woman in 1932 England.
Violet is a kind of pre-feminist heroine who is forced by circumstance to craft an independent life. A so-called ‘surplus woman’ whose generation of male peers was decimated in World War I, Violet lost a fiance and a beloved brother in battle 15 years earlier — events that all but sealed a ‘spinsterhood’ of taking care of her cantankerous mother and living off the charity of her surviving brother — a brother whose ability to reclaim his life’s trajectory after the war appears to be smoother than Violet’s.
Yet, acting without a rule book, Violet takes small steps to shift the needle on her happiness. After moving to Winchester — home to one of England’s grandest cathedrals — she’s drawn into a society of broderers, women who volunteer to embroider kneelers and cushions for the Cathedral.
An embroidery circle may seem like an unlikely path to independence, but it ends up being so much more than a satisfying hobby for Violet. She pursues it with the passion of a woman whose motherhood has been stolen from her. A woman who wants to leave a piece of herself behind. As one of the Latin-spouting broderers tells Violet as she is finishing off her first embroidered contribution to the Cathedral, “It may be the only mark we make. Sic parvis magna… From small things, greatness”.
Chevalier is a master of subtlety. It’s the small things — the victory of an even stitch or the reverberating impact of a cathedral bell — that allows the reader to hop aboard the Violet empowerment train. Violet’s path takes some unexpected turns — both subtle and dramatic — and en route our heroine meets other women who, in their own ways, refuse to let accepted societal norms restrict their lives or crush their spirits.
The best-selling novelist has done a masterful job of depicting the circumstances of a generation of women we seldom think about: the mothers, sisters, wives and fiances of men lost in World War I, whose job it was to remember those lost but not forgotten.