I was really honoured to be included in the blog tour for this lovely book by Tracy Chevalier to be published by Harper Collins on September 5th 2019. Thanks to the publisher for my ARC copy of the book.
It is 1932, and the losses of the First World War are still keenly felt.
Violet Speedwell, mourning for both her fiancé and her brother and regarded by society as a ‘surplus woman’ unlikely to marry, resolves to escape her suffocating mother and strike out alone.
A new life awaits her in Winchester. Yes, it is one of draughty boarding-houses and sidelong glances at her naked ring finger from younger colleagues; but it is also a life gleaming with independence and opportunity. Violet falls in with the broderers, a disparate group of women charged with embroidering kneelers for the Cathedral, and is soon entwined in their lives and their secrets. As the almost unthinkable threat of a second Great War appears on the horizon Violet collects a few secrets of her own that could just change everything…
This endearing, wonderful novel was a joy to read and proof, if proof were needed, that author Tracey Chevalier can write a book about any subject and make it an absolutely fascinating read.
We meet Violet Speedwell, who at 37 in 1932 is one of those women described in society as a ‘surplus woman’. Unmarried, after losing her beloved fiancé in the battle of Passchendaele during the Great War, she is one of the many women whose lives were affected forever by the war and one reason was because the ratio of women to men had changed and there weren’t enough available men of a marriageable age around. Not to mention the tragic survivors of the war, injured sometimes horrifically and/or forever damaged by ‘shell shock’, or battle fatigue PTSD as it’s now recognised to be.
Violet also lost her brother George in the war, killed in Deauville wood. Such single ‘spinster’ women were expected at that time to remain in the family home and care for ageing parents. Violet’s mother Mrs Speedwell however is of the view that she herself had the monopoly on grief and the loss of a fiancé, as in Violet’s case, was not so great a loss as the loss of a son. In this way Violet felt that she couldn’t grieve properly for her own loss. Always diminished and undermined by her self centred, difficult mother, Violet recognises that she needed to get away and be independent.
Moving to the cathedral city of Winchester and living in a female only boarding house, Violet works in the offices of an insurance company as a lowly paid typist. It’s a struggle to make ends meet and Violet often has to do without one main meal per day in order to survive.
In Violet’s own time, although her belief in God had been sorely tested due to the events of the war and the bereavements, she is drawn to the comfort of Winchester cathedral where she is accidentally included in a service for the cathedral broderie group. The group of ladies under the expert tutelage of *Louisa Pesel who embroider the kneelers and cushions for the cathedral have classes where they learn or carry on the art of embroidery and teach others the skill. Violet particularly admires the embroidered kneelers and cushions depicting historic scenes. (In the acknowledgments at the end of the book it’s pointed out that this type of embroidery is now known as needlepoint)
Violet joins the broderie group and through it a new world opens up to her. Friendships are formed and although I’m trying to avoid the cliche of ‘going on a journey’ but that’s exactly what happens to Violet. Her confidence increases. She has a social life and a social circle. A friendship with a local married man, a bell ringer in the cathedral is a comfort to her and she embarks alone on a walking holiday, staying in inns in the areas remembered from her childhood where her late father took his children on walking adventures.
This book was initially a slow starter for me although once into the story it became a fascinating and insightful read and I looked forward to picking it up again to read more about Violet’s continuing ‘journey’ into her new life. This period of history during and between both of the two wars is of particular interest to me. Not least because although women took on a variety of roles and work during the Great War because young men had enlisted in the services and women were sorely needed to work in their place, women were now allowed to vote, but attitudes post war towards women went back to how they were before the war and the women themselves went back to being housewives and doing what was regarded as gender specific work and roles. Typing was considered to be one of them and ‘women’s work’. Violet enjoyed typing because she could forget her problems and become absorbed by it, likewise she found the same absorption when she embroidered.
Same sex relationships between men were at that time illegal and had to take place clandestinely. Same sex relationships between women were thought to be a result of the shortage of available men and not a natural inclination. When two of the women in the broderie group fall in love with each other, they’re deemed to be ‘decadent’ and initially ostracised.
I can see this novel being adapted into film or TV series. It’s a novel about grief, the effects of war, attitudes to women, love, forbidden love, censure and independence. I was particularly fond of the character of Violet and mentally cheered for her during every step of her newly found independence and feared for her when difficulties affected her peace of mind.
The amount of research by the author into the time period, the subjects of church broderie and bell ringing is astounding and Tracy Chevalier has once more produced an outstanding work of historical fiction.
( *Louisa Pesel See here was elected the first president of the Embroiderers Guild of England in 1920, and appointed Mistress of Broderers of Winchester Cathedral in 1938)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tracy Chevalier is the author of ten novels, including At the Edge of the Orchard, Remarkable Creatures and Girl with a Pearl Earring, an international bestseller that has sold over five million copies and won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award. Born in Washington DC, in 1984 she moved to London, where she lives with her husband and son.
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