An accurate look at the lot of a woman in England between the wars, recommended to lovers of historical fiction, needlework, and cathedrals.
I thank NetGally and The Borough Press (Harper Collins) for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely decided to review.
I only came to Chevalier’s books quite late (I hadn’t read any of her novels until I caught up with At the Edge of the Orchard, which I loved), but I’m fast becoming a fan of her way of bringing history to life and immersing us in worlds that many of us might know little or nothing of and managing to grab our attention and to teach us invaluable facts at the same time. This novel is no different. Although we revisit a historical period that is much closer than those she has visited in other books (the story takes place in the UK the early part of the XX century, in between wars), once we get into the story, we soon discover that things have changed more than we might realise. The social mores of the era seem light years away from ours (although perhaps not everywhere and not for everybody), and, although told in the third person through the eyes of the narrator, Violet Speedwell, we learn what being a single woman (‘a surplus woman’ as the novel explains) was like at the time.
Violet, the protagonist, is not the most glamorous and exciting character I’ve come across. She is not special in any way, and that is what makes her story particularly representative of the period. As she often observes, there were many women who had lost male relatives, husbands or fiancées (she lost her older brother and her fiancée) during the Great War, and this generation of women are struggling to find a place for themselves. Some might go on to marry, but others… what kind of life awaits them? Although the style of writing is completely different, the sharp social observations put me in mind of Jane Austen and her novels. (Of course, Jane Austen is buried at Winchester Cathedral, so it all seems to fit). Violet leads a life where she is always conscious of other people’s opinion, of what her mother will think, of what will happen to her in the future (will she end up having to go to live with her younger brother and become the spinster aunt to his children?), of whose company she keeps… And once she leaves her mother’s house and goes to work and live in Winchester, she even has to be careful of how much she eats, as her salary won’t allow for any luxuries or even a hot meal per day. She is far from a conformist and has her moments of rebellion (she has her sherry men), but she is not open-minded or up in arms, at least not when we first meet her. By chance (and due to her love for Winchester Cathedral, inherited from her father, the most significant person in her life) she discovers the broderers, a group of women dedicated to enhancing the cathedral with their embroidery (when you read the author’s note you discover that the group existed and its main character, Louisa Pestel, was a historical figure whose archives are now at the University of Leeds), and although she knows little of embroidery, the thought of making a contribution to such a building and leaving her mark drives her to join in. Although not all is goodwill and camaraderie in the group, it changes Violet’s life, and she and us, readers, meet many other characters that give the story its depth and a strong sense of place and historical truth.
I love the way the author introduces details of embroidery (needlepoint), bell ringing, the history of Winchester Cathedral, and even the landscape of the city and the surrounding area, into the novel seamlessly, without making us feel as if we were reading a touristic guide or a history book. (She brings together all the threads like a skilled embroiderer herself). She is also proficient at descriptions that enlighten without becoming repetitive or overbearing. I get the feeling that she would be an incredible teacher and she’s hold her students enraptured by her words, the same as she does her readers.
The characters are recognisable as types, but they manage to surprise us as well, and the little details she mentions about them and about their behaviours and reactions make them true and genuine, even those who don’t feature prominently in the story. As the story is told from Violet’s point of view we sometimes get biased opinions about the characters, but we also get to see how she changes her perspective when she gains a new understanding of what life might be like for others, and we share in her progressive enlightenment and her new (and more generous) view of things. By the end of the novel, Violet is a totally new person and her life has changed beyond all recognition. Is it a happy ending? Well, I guess it depends on your definition of happiness, but she’s sure come into her own, and I enjoyed it. Do read it and see what you think!
I thought I’d share a few quotes from the book, to give you an idea of what you might find. (I recommend you check a sample of the novel to see if it’s a good fit, and remind you that I accessed an ARC copy, so there might be some changes in the final published version).
Women always studied other women, and did so far more critically than men ever did.
An invisible web ran amongst the women, binding them fast to their common cause, whatever that might be.
It was expected of women like her —unwed and unlikely to— to look after their parents.
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.
This is neither a page turner, nor a book for those who love non-stop action. There are adventures and surprises, but those are not earth-shattering but rather in keeping with the main character and her milieu. This is a story centred on the everyday life of a woman in the early 1930s in England, at a time when the country was starting to recover from a war, and people were already worried about the events taking place in Germany. It is a novel about how far women have come (at least in the West) or not, about how some things don’t change easily, about the small acts of rebellion and about finding your own place, about being creative in your own way (both the broderers and the bell ringers made me think of Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Garden), and about ensuring your voice is heard. It is a novel of manners for the XXI Century, and much, much more. I was enchanted and entranced by it, and I recommend it to people interested in Women’s History, UK recent history, the social history of the interwar period, embroidery, bell-ringing, Winchester Cathedral, and good writing.