Tracy Chevalier has earned a place of distinction among historical fiction writers for her beautifully imagined, meticulously detailed novels, including Girl with a Pearl Earring (1997), The Lady and the Unicorn (2003), and The Last Runaway (2013). Her latest novel, A Single Thread (Viking, Oct.), takes place in and around Winchester Cathedral during the early 1930s.
“I wanted to write a novel set in a cathedral, and Winchester had a lot of good stories,” Chevalier says. “Jane Austen is buried there. During the English Civil War, soldiers broke in, took the bones of kings and threw them through stained glass windows.”
Then, Chevalier says, she became acquainted with some of the less-well-known details of the building: “I saw a display about cushions and kneelers made by a group of embroiderers in the 1930s. Something about the group caught my imagination: they were making beautiful objects that would be there for hundreds of years but weren’t flashy like stained glass or carvings or floor tiles. They were cushions you actually use, and they bring comfort. I thought, ‘What would it be like to be in a group like that?’ ”
Chevalier learned needlepoint so that she could describe it with precision. “What you and I call embroidery, pictures made out of sewn thread, is not robust enough for cushions. Needlepoint uses much thicker wool, and you do it through a canvas backing, and it’s quite tough so it will last a long time. I made two things Violet makes in the book: a spectacle case and a needle case.”
Like her heroine, Violet Speedwell, Chevalier hiked the 25 miles between Winchester and Salisbury. Unlike her heroine, she had company. She had planned to do the walk before writing the scene in which a stranger follows Violet into a field, she says. “My husband and I were going to do it together, but we had to cancel and I went ahead and wrote the chapters. Then I had some time when my husband was away, but I couldn’t bring myself to do the walk alone—maybe because I had already written about it and it made me scared. If I were walking in a cornfield and I looked back and saw a man walking 50 yards behind me, I would have exactly the same response as Violet.”
Chevalier and her husband hiked the route together while the book was being edited. “The first day, it was absolutely pouring,” she says. They went to a pub that Violet visits in the book. “I walked in and the bar was in the opposite part of the room than I’d imagined. So I switched that. Then I looked at the guy behind the bar, and he was perfectly friendly. I thought maybe I ought to send him a copy of the book and say I’m sorry.”
Chevalier also explored bell ringing. “I loved being up in the tower with the bell ringers.” she says. “I watched a lot of bell ringing, but I didn’t do much of it. You have to spend years learning.”
One of the bell ringers in the novel, Arthur, becomes Violet’s romantic interest. “I wouldn’t say romance is essential in historical fiction,” Chevalier says. “I think it’s more relationships and what people learn from each other. Violet learns a lot from Arthur that’s not necessarily to do with love and sex and romance. It’s also about standing up for things.”
Secondary characters include Louisa Pesel, real-life founder of the Winchester embroiderers group, and fictional embroiderer Gilda Hill. “The characters in my books are often a combination of people who really existed and people I’ve made up,” Chevalier says. “I don’t plan everything out from the beginning. I have an emotional arc for the main character: I know where they start and how they feel and how they’re going to feel at the end. Arthur and Louisa are moral compasses. Gilda is slightly different—an outsider in her own community. She’s a good friend to Violet, and Violet learns to be a good friend to her. In a way the book is about how to be a friend, how to give support.”
Britain had two million more women than men after World War I, and Violet is one of them—what newspapers of the day called a “surplus woman.”
“When I read that phrase I was appalled,” Chevalier says. “The implication is it’s their fault they’re surplus. You imagine this massive game of musical chairs, where some women are left standing. They’ve played the game wrong. There’s probably something wrong with them. I started to think, How could a woman overcome this derisory label? How would she go about making an independent life?”
Violet isn’t the only Chevalier heroine who yearns for independence. “Whatever time period I’m writing about, it’s always about a woman negotiating for her own power—being able to effect a personal change or change around her,” she says. “That’s the case whether it’s medieval France or 1930s England.”
In fact, it isn’t the time period that first inspires a novel, Chevalier says. She first selects a subject and then researches the corresponding era. “I fact-check as I go,” she says. “But a good copy editor helps fix things. In A Single Thread, I had Violet humming ‘Love is the Sweetest Thing.’ The copy editor wrote back, noting that it’s August 1932 when she’s humming it, but the song didn’t come out until September 8. Once I knew, there was no way I was going to leave it. With past novels, readers have written to tell me gleefully of the mistakes I’ve made. There’s one I’m so embarrassed about that I can’t tell you what it was.”
Born in the States, Chevalier studied creative writing in England. Rose Tremain, author of Restoration, was one of her instructors. “Rose showed me that historical fiction doesn’t have to feel historical—it can feel incredibly relevant and of the moment,” she says. “We’ve become friends. She’s very supportive.”
Chevalier now lives in London. She spoke with me by telephone from her study, which she describes as a little room, very snug, with a window looking out over a tiny garden. “I have a Formica desk,” she says. “It’s kind of cherry colored. And it’s got a lovely curve in it. It’s very messy: there are books everywhere; there are papers everywhere.” Her desk, it seems, is not as meticulous as her novels.
Chevalier’s nonliterary interests include the Woodland Trust, which works to preserve Britain’s forests, and quilting. “When I wrote The Last Runaway, I learned how to quilt,” she says. “I found I really enjoyed it. I sew slowly and not particularly well. One thing I like about quilting is I don’t have to be good at it.”
Another interest is curating. Chevalier has curated a London quilt show and an exhibit about Charlotte Brontë at Brontë Parsonage. She also served as writer-in-residence at the York Gallery. “I love curating,” she says. “You very carefully set up an exhibition and think this is the way people are going to read this panel and they’re going to look at this, and then someone barges right by, doesn’t stop, doesn’t read the panel; they just go do their thing. It’s like writing a novel: people read it in their own way. You have to learn to let go.”
Chevalier says she already has a new novel in the works. “My next book is set in Venice, which is spectacular, because it means I have to go there a lot. It’s about glass beads and how they were made in Venice since about the 14th century and were used by traders all over the world as currency. It follows one family from around the 15th century to the 21st.”
And yes, Chevalier did meet Colin Firth during the making of the film Girl with a Pearl Earring. “He made a beeline for me when I was in the cafeteria on the set,” she says. “I was thrilled. He came over so he could talk to me about Vermeer. He was struggling with some aspect and wanted to pick my brain. He really is lovely. And so is his wife!”
Judi Goldenberg is a freelance writer in Asheville, N.C., and a frequent contributor to PW.