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Eye Opening Tale of Stitchers and Ringers

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

If you’ve ever taken up  painting, playing a musical instrument or cross stitch, then you’ll know how utterly absorbing these activities can be. 

In A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier shows how engrossing yourself in an interest can also be a form of salvation.

A Single ThreadIt’s embroidery that comes to the rescue for the protagonist, Violet Speedwell.  It rescues her from a life where her only choices are to stay at home with her over-bearing embittered mother or live hand-to-mouth in a draughty boarding house and drudge each day as a typist. 

Violet is what the newspapers of the 1930s labelled a “surplus woman”: unmarried and likely to remain so because vast numbers of eligible men died during World War 1.  The war was a double tragedy for Violet, both her fiancée and brother having fallen at Passchendale. She is still mourning their loss 16 years later.

Desperate to get away from the stultifying atmosphere of home, she moves to Winchester to take up a secretarial job. But still she feels she is living only half a life. 

I felt as if I were in a deep hole that took me so long to climb out of. It was as if I were sleepwalking, awake but unable to say anything or do anything to make my life come to to life again.

It isn’t until she visits the cathedral and discovers the broderers, a group of women creating intricate canvas embroidery for kneelers and cushions, that she finds fulfilment and friendship. 

Under the mentorship of the group’s founder Louisa Pesel, Violet flourishes.  Her nights at the boarding house are no longer an ordeal when she has her stitches to practice. She gains the confidence to negotiate higher wages from her employer and to handle her mother’s demands. Romance beckons in the shape of a bell ringer at the cathedral, though it’s a forbidden love since Arthur Knight is already married.

 

A Celebration of Stitches 

The story is reasonable though ideally I would have preferred more drama and greater variety in pace. The elements did exist. For example, there’s a stalker who accosts Violet in a field and again near the Cathedral one dark night (no prizes for guessing who comes to her rescue!).

There’s also tension within the borderers because of one member who’s very bossy. And we have a lesbian love affair that raises eyebrows in the ultra conservative cloistered world of Winchester.

Unfortunately they all seem to fizzle out too quickly.  

But I’ll forgive Tracy Chevalier because there were two aspects of this novel that were simply wonderful. 

This is a writer who can take an artist or a great work of art and pluck from her research a story of its creation that is rich in detail and historically accurate. A Girl In A Pearl Earring opened up the world of Vermeer and a later novel, The Lady and the Unicorn, delved into the world of tapestry weavers in sixteenth century Brussels.

In A Single Thread she turns her attention to the work of Broderers’ Guild  in Winchester. The members took inspiration from the Cathedral’s medieval tiles; using cross, tent and rice stitches to form intricate patters of medallions, Celtic knots, trees of life and flowers.  The kneelers, cushions and alms bags had a practical purpose – they were used everyday by the congregation and clergy – but they also wanted them to be beautiful, as befitting the grandeur of the Cathedral. 

A Single Thread

Tracy Chevalier shows how this is a painstaking exercise, demanding precision and attention to detail but get it right and the canvas comes alive. As Violet discovers:

…once you were skilled enough, you could settle into it and empty your mind of all but the work in front of you. Life then boiled down to a row of blue stitches that became a long braid across the canvas, or a sunburst of red that became a flower. 

It’s hardly surprising that Violet finds stitching more satisfying than typing contracts. 

I’ve tried tapestry work myself and would have loved Louisa Pesel as a tutor. I doubt however that my work would be anywhere near the standard of those cathedral stitchers. But I’d have more of a chance at proficiency in embroidery than I would at bell ringing.

 Ringing the Changes

I’m rather like Violet when she has her first introduction to ringing:

She could not make out any pattern in these bells ≠ though each was clearly struck they seemed to clatter over each other in no particular order. Yet they were deliberate, not chaotic. It was like listening to people speaking German and sensing there was a grammar and structure, a rhythm and logic to it, even if you could not understand the meaning. 

Arthur tries to explain:

We start by ringing the five bells down the scale, one after the other. These are called rounds. Then we switch the order of two of the bells, so that each sequence of bells is different from the last. We call them changes. One of the rules of change-ringing is that no sequence is repeated.

It’s all to do with maths apparently and something called factorials. Don’t ask me to explain; I can only just cope with fractions and equations. I suppose the only way to really understand what’s going on is to climb up into a bell tower and watch the ringers in action. I wonder whether Tracy Chevalier did that as part of her research? Since I’m highly unlikely to summon up enough courage to climb so high I shall just learn to appreciate the magnificence of the sound that comes out of that tower.  

There’s no doubt that this is a highly readable book with some interesting characters (I loved the depiction of Violet’s mum) and fascinating historical detail. 

A Single Thread: Fast Facts

  • A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier will be published by The Borough Press in September 2019. My copy was provided by the publishers in exchange for a balanced review.
  • Louisa Pesel is a real person. She was the first President of the Embroiderers’ Guild of England in 1920.
  • Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral,She has a modest gravestone whose inscription records her personal virtues and stoicism, but makes no mention of her writing.

 

 

Six degrees: From Year of Wonders

I’ve never tried my hand at the Six Degrees of Separation but the latest chain resulted in some creative linking by a number of bloggers. It got me thinking what connections I could find.

The chain starts with Year of Wonders, a novel that was an international best seller for Geraldine Brooks. Year of Wonders is based on a true-life story of the small Peak District village of the village of Eyam that put itself in quarantine to prevent the spread of the dreaded bubonic plague. If you don’t know this book, I hope my review will persuade you to beg/borrow/buy it soon.

The plague also makes its appearance in an audio book I just finished – Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Deveraux  – which features a young servant who goes to work in the painter’s house in Amsterdam and ends up becoming his muse and model. I won’t reveal exactly how the plague fits in because that would reveal too much of the plot but I can recommend this book if you enjoy historical fiction set in the seventeenth century.

If you’re thinking the servant/painter’s house/Netherlands combination sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be far wrong because this is also the premise of Girl with a Pearl Earring  the best-selling novel by Tracy Chevalier set in the Delft studios of the painter Vermeer.Chevalier said she was inspired to write the book having seen the Vermeer painting at the Mauritshuis art museum in The Hague (you can hear her Ted talk on this here).

From the Mauritshuis it’s but a short step to the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. This is a key location in   Edna O’Brien’s most recent novel The Little Red Chairs in which a war criminal known in his country as the Beast of Bosnia is found hiding in a remote Irish village. He is captured and taken to the Hague to stand trial for genocide just as Radovan Karadžić was and sentenced earlier this year to 40 years’ imprisonment for atrocities and war crimes.

Violence and crime committed during war also feature large in the novel I’ve just finished reading – Moskva by Jack Grimwood. It’s a page turner of a thriller that begins with the discovery of a young boy’s body at the foot of the Kremlin and the disappearance of the British Ambassador’s daughter. The year is 1985 and Gorbachev is the man who has just taken the hot seat as leader of the Soviet Union with the intent of rescuing the crumbling economic and political system. The plot takes us back to 1945 and the Russian advance on Berlin. What happened then is something the KGB and the Politburo would prefer remain a secret but they have a determined adversary in the form of Major Tom Fox, a man used to going undercover in some of the world’s hottest spots.

Moscow. Snow.  KGB. Bodies. It wouldn’t be a thriller set in Russia without these features and they don’t get much better than Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, published in 1981. The story follows Arkady Renko, a chief investigator for the Militsiya, (the civil police) who is assigned to a case involving three corpses found in Gorky Park, an amusement park in Moscow, who have had their faces and fingertips cut off by the murderer to prevent identification. So realistic a picture did it depict of everyday life in pre-Glasnost era, that the book was immediately banned in the USSR. It’s still one of the best thrillers I’ve read set in Russia.

So in six smallish journeys we’ve gone from plague to political intrigue and from a small village in England to  a Dutch city in its golden years and from painters to men determined to get to the truth.

 

Sunday Salon: Author Inspirations

sundaysalon

Young children seem to have this capacity for asking questions that appear simple yet feel impossible to answer.  Like “Why is yellow? ” What is yellow I could manage but I’d be stumped to find an explanation of why yellow is yellow and not green or red.  Another one that threw me a few years ago came when I was  coaching some slow readers in my local primary school. One child stopped in the middle of reading, looked up at me and asked: “where do ideas come from?” I tried my best but at the end she simply repeated the question.

It was a conversation I remembered two nights ago during an uncomfortable flight squashed in an economy class seat next to a stranger  who fell asleep almost immediately we took off and then proceeded to snore loudly while listing ever closer to ‘my’ space. Unable to sleep but yet too tired to cope with a lengthy flim I flicked through all the entertainment options in the hope of finding something to distract me. And then I discovered some wonderful bite size entertainment in the form of Ted talks. Even better, one featured Tracy Chevalier .

Now one thing that I’ve often wondered about is how authors get ideas for their stories. What ignites their interest and gives them the initial spark for their plot? Through Chevalier’s talk I  discovered one way in which the creative process can work.

Chevalier gets ideas by visiting art galleries and asking questions about the paintings that most interest her. Not the usual questions about the techniques used or when the painting was created. But questions about what is happening in the painting, looking for the story behind the story in a sense. It’s a practice that made her a household name – seeing Vermeer’s painting Girl With a Pearl Earring (also known aGirl In A Turban caused her to wonder …..” what Vermeer did to her to make her look like that. Now there’s a story worth writing.”. The result, one can say is history for it resulted in her award-winning book of the same name and later an award-winning film. She seems to have used the same approach when looking at other works of art – a book on tapestries for example, gave her the inspiration for The Lady and the Unicorn.

In the TED talk she gives another  practical example of the technique in action. One day, seeing a painting of a young man dressed in a sumptuous Elizabethan doublet, she began to speculate why he was blushing. I won’t spoil this by revealing the story she spun from this exercise -just listen to her TED Talk here to find out.

it got me thinking whether other authors follow similar practices? I can’t think of another book inspired by a work of art. Does anyone have a suggestion??

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