Can you believe that it’s 20 years since Tracy Chevalier published ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’? There was an audible gulp from the audience when she shared that fact with us at an absorbing talk hosted by Owl Bookshop, in Kentish Town.
Chevalier herself is an honorary North Londoner, having moved to the UK from America 34 years ago and made her home in the UK’s capital. Indeed, she describes her new book, ‘A Single Thread’, as “very English”, a description supported by her agent, who told Chevalier it read like a lost English classic. “I decided I’d take that as a compliment and delete the word “lost””, she joked.
Introducing her new novel to us, Chevalier explained that she views herself as a historical writer who writes about lots of different things – in particular, subjects she’s been passionate about since she was a teenager. One of those subjects is cathedrals – “I love how they take me outside myself” – and she has many favourites, but elected to set ‘A Single Thread’ at Winchester Cathedral “…because of the amazing stories attached to it, which appeal to a novelist”.
I’m yet to visit Winchester Cathedral, so was tickled by Chevalier’s description of it as “Like a squat, grey toad”. It may be plain on the outside but, our author assured us, its interior is “spectacular”.
Originally, Chevalier set out to write a “mild satire” about one of the Cathedral’s volunteer groups – and drop her heroine, Violet Speedwell, in the middle of said group. And the book is, indeed, based on that premise, beginning with Violet moving to Winchester from her parents’ house in Southampton and joining the Cathedral’s Embroiderers: a collection of individuals dedicated to repairing the building’s kneelers and cushions.
However, Chevalier soon found the novel taking her in a different direction. At the time when it is set – 1932 – Violet is 38 years old and one of many “surplus women”, as newspapers of that time delightfully called them. World War I had wiped out a generation of men and, by the 1920s, there were two more million women than men in the UK. Chevalier has researched this period extensively and described to us, eloquently, the many challenges that “surplus women” faced. Society, she pointed out, was not supportive of single women: few opportunities to pursue further education existed, and career choices were limited – and poorly paid. These women had no choice but to rely on their families and, in return, were expected to live at home and care for their parents as they aged.
This is the fate that has befallen Violet, whose fiancé and older brother were killed in the war. In writing about this character, Chevalier found herself moving away from satire and taking seriously how such women would have dealt with the “surplus” label, and how they might have made lives for themselves. More than anything, Chevalier wanted to explore the realities of being a woman on your own during that era, and she read two very moving passages to us from the book which illustrated Violet Speedwell’s plight.
She was determined, Chevalier told us, not to fall into using the “stereotypes” of what single women would or wouldn’t do during the 1930s. One often pronounced assumption is that they wouldn’t have sex; consequently, Violet is not a virgin. In the book’s earlier scenes, whilst Violet is still living with her parents in Southampton, we see her making the occasional foray to the bar of a local hotel, where she sips on sherry and “waits for someone to come along” – which they frequently do.
Asked what her favourite part of the writing process is, Chevalier paused, and then confessed: “The research – especially visiting locations: I love the journey it takes me on. I do recognise that the writing has to happen, though!” She does not, Chevalier mused, see herself moving into contemporary fiction any time soon: “I like that historical fiction allows me to take a step away from myself, and my life”.
I can’t wait to read ‘A Single Thread’. I enjoy Tracy Chevalier’s writing anyway, but she brought the character of Violet Speedwell and the post-WWI period vividly to life during this talk – and I’m excited to find out more about both.