Winchester, UK, between the wars. Life goes on as families continue to grieve their lost sons, women live without men by their sides, and, far, far away, the Nazis build their power base in Germany for another go at world domination. If you only know Tracy Chevalier from Girl With a Pearl Earring, then you’ll find this quite different. The setting and focus brings the work of Irish writer Maeve Binchy to mind, but without Binchy’s warmth, optimism and overall cheerfulness. The lives of ordinary folks, yes, but more forward looking, a more realistic tone, and a glimmer of a changing world view. You have the good, the bad and the (at the time) still frowned upon; for example, there’s a lesbian couple. Some are incensed, there is talk, but there are some who accept, who don’t tut and turn away. Change.
Violet Speedwell lost her brother and fiancé in WWI; at thirty-eight, she is a spinster, and her bitter mother makes life difficult, so Violet sets out to make a life on her own in Winchester. Spinsterhood was a dreaded status in those days, and it’s tough going. Violet, however, learns to stand up for herself, and she gets by. Winchester Cathedral is the center of life in town, and Violet visits frequently to enjoy its history and beauty. In doing so, she’s fascinated by the embroidered kneelers and cushions in the church and joins the Society of Cathedral Broderers (spelled correctly) to learn this ancient art. Meets a gentleman, too, a bell ringer, an expert in change ringing. (Have you read The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers? A Lord Peter Wimsey mystery based on change ringing.) And here is where the Tracy Chevalier we know comes in. She can take little known subjects such as needlepoint and change ringing and expound ‘til the cows come home . . . and you will be enthralled. I do not lie. Even the change ringing is clearly explained, and that stuff is as arcane as Egyptian embalming methods. Probably more so – though much noisier. Violet’s story winds round and about these skills, but the story itself is in the people, people living serenely on the cusp of another cataclysm and a changed world.
More of a woman’s read, but well-written and rewarding. Comfortable, but not cozy, with an undercurrent of foreboding. Ancient skills juxtaposed against the coming of the modern era. I enjoyed Ms. Chevalier’s latest and was over the moon when I came upon this word oddity – fylfot. A fylfot, or fylfots if you have multiples of them. A word so cute it looks as if it ought to wiggle like a puppy. An Anglo-Saxon word for an ancient symbol used in many cultures and religions for light, life and good fortune. We no longer see it as that because, you see, during this era of change between the wars, the fylfot became the swastika. Symbolism can be a bitch. How far you have fallen, fylfot.