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Making Your Way as a "Surplus Woman": The Single Thread

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

A Novel by Tracy Chevalier

black and white photo of women hiking in the 1930s era.

After World War I

Most sources say that more than 20 million people were killed or injured during World War I. Eight and a half million of that number were male soldiers and millions of civilian men died too. Now, more than a century later, most of us don't think about the long-lasting effects of a population decimated by war and the number of women who would remain single because of the scarcity of men. Women all over the world were now left without husbands, fiances, fathers, brothers, and uncles and were referred to as "surplus women."

In a world where women were expected to be dependent on a male, millions of women struggled after the war, left alone in the world without money or education.

Tracy Chevalier's novel, A Single Thread, is a thoughtful examination of the difficult choices women had to make to rebuild their lives after World War I.

The work of Tracy Chevalier

Have you ever heard of a book called The Girl with a Pearl Earring?

Tracy Chevalier's second novel, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, is the book that made people stand up and take notice of her. Since then, she's written ten novels and is working on her eleventh.

Tracy Chevalier grew up in Washington D.C. and graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio before moving to London where she worked as an editor on reference books. She then earned her MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and her books are decidedly English in tone, resonant with detail, emotionally reserved, and presented with a stiff upper lip.

To this point, I had read two novels by Tracy ChevalierThe Girl with the Pearl Earring and Remarkable Creatures, and found both to be quiet, contemplative, insightful books, but I think I like A Single Thread best so far.

The novel, A Single Thread

Violet Speedwell is a woman in her late thirties, grief-stricken by the death of her fiance and her older brother during World War I. As the "spinster" of the family, her days are destined to be spent taking care of her difficult, demanding mother. Unless Violet makes different - and unexpected - choices.

Instead of bowing to the wishes of her family, Violet convinces her brother to pay for a housekeeper to take care of her mother, and she takes the little money she has earned from her job as a typist at an insurance agency to rent a tiny little room in a boarding house in Winchester, fourteen miles away. She has no money and little to eat, but she does have a new type of freedom.

Once in Winchester, Violet discovers the "Broderers," a group of women committed to bringing comfort to the worshippers at Winchester Cathedral by embroidering beautiful cushions and kneelers. She joins, and under the tutelage of a kind and talented mentor, she - like dozens of other women - commits herself to becoming an expert needlewomen capable of giving something to others.

Within the group of stitchers, Violet finds friendship and strength, and becomes aware of the choices other women have to make to survive, too.

Difficult decisions and stressful situations

In the 1930s, a woman had little power and less economic stability. She had to figure out a way to survive, and after World War I, the world had changed.

She could choose to purposely attract one of the few available men and "settle," regardless of whether she loved him or not, trading love for security.

She could choose to be the "spinster" relative, taking care of elderly parents or living off of the generosity of a brother or grandparent, expected to follow the rules of someone else's household with no opinions of her own.

If she was lucky enough to own property, she could take in boarders and earn enough money to keep the house and support herself, surrounding herself with a different kind of extended family.

She could quit hoping for a good match and forge a way for herself, pursuing her own interests, content to be alone.

But If a woman scandalously loved another woman, what could she do then?

And if a woman wanted children, what could she do without a man?

Artful elements

Tracy Chevalier gives plenty of food for thought in answering the questions above, giving us glimpses of the lives of women who made choices depending on what they believed to be their shot at survival.

We come to appreciate Violet Speedwell's courage and resilience while sympathizing with the decisions some of the other women make, too.

Amid the stories of the women, Chevalier weaves artful elements into the plot. A Single Thread is not just about the choices of Violet Speedwell and other "surplus" women finding their way, but it's also about bygone lifestyles and forgotten arts.

Of course, the Broderers, with their stitchwork and embroidery patterns give depth to the novel's narrative, but so do "bellringers." For eons, bellringers have met and practiced daily to create the intricate music that floats from the churches' belltowers on strict schedules. Violet's love interest teaches her about the bells and inspires her to explore outside of the expected behavior of single women.

The power of a title

A Single Thread is a meaningful title in so many ways. First, it plays on the embroidery theme, highlighting the fact that needlework was a labor of love by common women, giving what they could to provide beauty and comfort to others regardless of their marital status.

Secondly, A Single Thread is an analogy. One thread is beautiful on its own, but when combined with other threads it is stronger and more nuanced, creating more intricate patterns. One woman can contribute, no doubt, but several women joined together can contribute more than one single person ever could.

Finally, A Single Thread represents the life that Violet Speedwell chose to live, not dependent on a man, but based on her own longings and vision for her future.

A Single Thread is not a fast-paced thriller but an enjoyable, slow, deep read.


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