Tracy Chevalier has always been, sort of, an outsider. Growing up in Washington, DC, a “company town where the company was the government”, she watched her father, a photographer with The Washington Post, document events from the sidelines. “Just like it is with photography, I think it’s important for a writer to be on the outside, looking in. I went to a racially integrated school, which was mostly black, so I was in the minority there; later, I moved to England to study, and even though I’ve knocked the edges off my American accent, and I don’t speak loudly, I’m still very American, and for my whole adult life, have lived as an outsider,” she says during our conversation at the recently-concluded Tata Literature Live! Festival in Mumbai. It makes sense then, that the 57-year-old American-born British writer has consistently been fascinated by those who once lived on the fringes of society, overlooked and underwritten — it so happens that they are almost always women.
Ten years after her breakthrough novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring, inspired by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s work of the same name, Chevalier offers us her 10th novel, A Single Thread (HarperCollins). She takes her readers to Winchester, England, to meet a group of “surplus women” — those left behind after thousands of men were killed in World War I. It’s an unkind word, surplus, as though the women were damaged or unused goods; rather Dickensian in the way they are referred to as a statistic. Chevalier nods quietly. “Yes, it’s very painful. They were looked down upon as not really contributing to society. In the 1920s and ’30s, when that label was used, these women were seen as a problem; and I wanted to write about a woman who is a ‘surplus’, but she’s not a problem, she makes her own life,” she says.
But Chevalier didn’t set off to write about the women in the first place — it was a window she had set her sight on. “The Winchester Cathedral has a big, stained glass window which was damaged by the soldiers who opposed the monarchy during the English Civil War in the 17th century. They dug up bones of dead kings and threw them through the window. The people who worked in the cathedral gathered the glass and later restored the window, but they kept the broken bits, so it looks like patchwork. I thought it would be a great story to tell,” she says. But, inside the cathedral, Chevalier spotted cushions — “yes, cushions!” — made by female broderers who embroidered “kneelers” for the worshippers; she knew right then that this was the community she would write about. Enter Violet Speedwell, who joins a generation of women doomed to a life of spinsterhood after the death of her fiancé in the Great War. She moves to Winchester to work at the cathedral and finds support and friendship in the group of broderers, and love, too, in an unusual place.
For those of us who have read and loved Chevalier’s luminous prose, one knows that the joy doesn’t lie in turning the pages to know how the story ends — it’s found in carefully crafted scenes of what is otherwise a mundane, unremarkable life. As a storyteller who teaches herself the crafts and occupations she writes about — painter, quilter, apple farmer — Chevalier is a master of the minutiae of everyday life and lends her characters the quiet dignity that the world has denied them. “It’s much easier to describe these things if I’ve done it myself. I learned to embroider for A Single Thread,” she says.
Chevalier also uses her books as a way to time travel; in each of her books, the past is a country she visits over and over again. “The past gives us more perspective on ourselves and our present; it makes you feel really small in this long continuum and that’s a comforting feeling. The time period is a character in my novels. I write to escape myself and my life. I have imagination and I can do research; I don’t want readers to think that my books are about me. Nobody is ever going to ask me if I’m the girl with the pearl earring,” she says.
No, they won’t, but her second novel continues to captivate audiences across mediums. After its Oscar-nominated screen adaptation in 2003, Girl With a Pearl Earring will soon be turned into an opera in Zurich. In a previous interview, Chevalier was asked what she would say to Vermeer, if she had the chance. Her response was “Can you forgive me?” Why did she say that? “It’s because I took his life and wrote about it. I made it into artwork,” she says. Well, Vermeer did the same, didn’t he — paint the city of Delft, paint anonymous women inside their homes, capture the world around him in works that radiate all the light and the colour that filled them? “You’re right, I didn’t think of it that way. I won’t apologise again,” says Chevalier.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Threading Lives through the Years’