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Tracy Chevalier and the fate of the surplus women

The Queen of historical fiction, Tracy Chevalier, whose bestseller “The Girl with a Pearl Earring” was made into a movie and now an opera, is back with her tenth novel.

Tracy Chevalier, author (15621057)
Tracy Chevalier, author (15621057)

It is the story of Violet Speedwell, who lost her fiance in World War I and, still single years later, faces the fate of being a “surplus woman”.

Instead of sinking quietly into spinsterhood, Violet moves away from her overbearing mother and discovers friendship and purpose in a group of women embroiderers at Winchester Cathedral.

Tracy says: “It turned out there were two million more women than men after World War I and the media were very condescending about them, referring to them as surplus women, or worse. It was a negative term.”

She discovered the plight of the surplus women after looking for a story that could be set in a cathedral, as she had always been fascinated by these buildings.

“I wanted to set the novel in and around a cathedral and I chose Winchester because it had such interesting stories attached to it,” she says.

As the burial place of notable people including Jane Austen and famous 17th century fisherman Izaak Walton, Tracy thought Winchester had a rich seam of stories to investigate.

A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier (15621059)
A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier (15621059)

She says: “I assumed I would tell a story about Jane Austen or the time when the cathedral walls began to crack because the ground it was built on was swampy and they were worried the whole thing would fall down. So they hired a diver to swim 20 feet under the water that had collected under the cathedral and shore up the foundations with concrete.

“I thought that would have made a great story and I assumed that’s what I was going to write, either that or a story about the Great West Window that Cromwell’s men smashed. I thought I might write an English Civil War novel.”

But when she visited the cathedral to do her research, Tracy lit upon a smaller but much more touching story amongst the pews.

She says: “When I arrived there looking for stories the thing that appealed the most was the most obscure story, which was about these cushions. I was drawn to the beautiful cushions and kneelers that were embroidered in the 1930s by a group of women volunteers.

Winchester Cathedral. Pic: Annie Spratt (16090608)
Winchester Cathedral. Pic: Annie Spratt (16090608)

“I conceived of this heroine Violet Speedwell and thought of the women in that group who would have been affected by the losses in World War One. So I started imagining my heroine and decided she would be one of these surplus women, whom I had vaguely heard about.”

Research into the women left single by the loss of a generation of men uncovered some terribly sad details.

Tracy says: “Sometimes I set books at times when there is very little information, like 15th century France or I wrote about Vermeer when there is not that much known about him. But there are loads of accounts of the 1930s and photographs and lots of books written about the time.

“The most useful was a book called ‘Singled Out’ by Virginia Nicholson which is all about the surplus women. In it she quotes a number of manuals called things like ‘Live Single and Love It’, that kind of stuff. One book had a list of what a single woman should have in her cupboard for eating. It was tins of sardines and a tin of rice pudding in case someone comes around! Somewhere in the book she mentions Marmite sandwiches and fish paste; I just thought, oh yes I’ve got to use that, those sort of sad moments. It described how you should use hand soap to wash out your stockings and having a lonely sandwich in the park on a Sunday.

“I thought: oh, God. It's just so sad. I realised I didn’t want my heroine to be sad. She might start in sadness, but she has got to find a way to build her own community so that she is happier in the end.”

The way that Violet starts to break free of her lonely past is to join the group of ‘broderers’ t the cathedral who has taken on the huge task of making and decorating with colourful stitching the sturdy cushions and ‘kneelers’ for the cathedral. They were made out of strong canvas to ensure they would last.

Tracy says: “The book is about how you express yourself when society doesn't give you the usual ways and one way is to make something that is going to last hundreds of years to put in a place like a cathedral.”

Violet moves out of her family home and takes up a job as a typist, which leaves her impoverished and lonely. But when she discovers to community of women in the cathedral she discovers friendship, creative expression, bell ringing and - possibly - love.

Tracey says: “I wanted a heroine who isn't married and isn't going to marry and thought, what would her life look like and how would she create a life for herself?

How would she find her own community? So this community of women who were making something appealed to me and then I dropped my heroine into the group to see what would happen.

“She is not based on anyone real but i thought of her as being independent but damaged by the war in a way that so many people were. She had just assumed she would have a family and children but that future got cut off when her fiance died and it turned out there were just too few men available. When her father dies she recognises she is either going to be stuck with her difficult mother or she is going to break into new territory. so that is what she decides to do.”

However, just because marriage and children are not in her future, it doesn’t mean there will be no romance for Violet.

Tracy says: “There is a love interest, because one of the things that was really important to me was that she be a sexual being and has a sex life. Because I think there is also an assumption that if you are a single, old maid or spinster that you are a dried up old stick who doesn’t have any feelings and that is not true.

So there is a love interest in the book but that's not necessarily the most important thing. “One of the things she recognises is that romance isn't the thing to strive for and isn't the most important thing in her life.”

So what becomes more important to her? “I think it is self expression,” says Tracy “And that is what making the cushions and kneelers is about. And the fact that it is set in a cathedral at a time when she doesn't know if she believes in God but she feels strongly the desire to make her mark.”

  • Tracy Chevalier will discuss A Single Thread at St Mary's Church, St Mary's Street, Ely, CB7 4HF on September 12 at 7.30pm. Tickets £7. Box office: toppingbooks.co.uk.

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