Likely Stories: A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

Nov 14, 2019

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Ages ago, I got a copy of The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.  What followed was a storm of varied and interesting stories—mostly about women and how they are swept aside in deference to men.  A Single Thread, Tracy’s latest novel, is no exception.


Violet Speedwell lives with her mother, and they most definitely do not get along.  She decides to get another job some distance away from her mother.  Tracy writes, “Her move to Winchester last November had been sudden.  After her father’s death, Violet had limped along for a year and a half, living alone with her mother.  It was expected of women like her—unwed and unlikely to—to look after her parents.  She had done her best, she supposed.  But Mrs. Speedwell was impossible; she always had been, even before the loss of her elder son, George, in the war.  She was from an era when daughters were dutiful and deferential to their mothers, at least until they married and deferred to their husbands—not that Mrs. Speedwell had ever deferred much to hers.  When they were children, Violet and her brothers had avoided their mother’s attention, playing together as a tight gang run with casual authority by George.  Violet was often scolded by Mrs. Speedwell for not being feminine enough.  ‘You’ll never get a husband with scraped knees and flyaway hair and being mad about books, she declared.’  Little did she know that when the war came along, there would be worse things than books and scrapes to keep Violet from finding a husband’” (16).

This was only the beginning of obstacles Violet had to face.  Violet stepped out for a walk around Winchester Cathedral, and Tracey writes, “she found herself drawn to the notice board and the sign about the embroiderers, written in careful copperplate like her mother’s handwriting.  Violet copied down the number of Mrs. Humphrey Biggins, and that evening used her landlady’s telephone to ring. // “‘Compton 220.’  Mrs. Biggins herself answered the telephone.  Violet knew immediately it wasn’t a daughter, or a housekeeper, or a sister.  She sounded so much like Violet’s mother in her better days that it silenced her, and Mrs. Biggins had to repeat ‘Compton 220’ with increased irritation until she eventually demanded, ‘Who is this?  I will not tolerate these silences.  I shall be phoning the police to report you, you can be sure!’ // ‘I’m sorry,’ Violet stumbled.  ‘Perhaps I have the wrong number.’  Though she knew she did not.  ‘I’m—I’m ringing about the kneelers in the cathedral.’ // ‘Young lady, your telephone manner is dreadful.  You are all of a muddle.  You must say your name clearly, and then ask to speak to me, and say what your call concerns.  Now try it,’’ (31-32).  Eventually, Violet joins the ‘embroiderers’ and makes several friends, including Arthur, a bell ringer for the cathedral.  She develops a crush even though she is aware he is married.  Violet is empathetic for some of the new friends she has made.  She helps several of these friends resettle their lives. 

On another walk, “Violet wandered up the north aisle to stop at Jane Austen’s grave, a simple stone slab in the floor that did not mention her writing.  It had been left to others later to put up a memorial brass plaque near the grave, indicating her fame as an author” (155).  This sprightly story only has a few bumps along the way.  Tracy Chevalier has written another significant novel in A Single Thread.  5 Stars!

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!