Nonfiction November: Week 2 – Book Pairing

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I’m taking part in Nonfiction November 2019 again this year. It was one of my favourite events last year – this year it will run from Oct 28 to Nov 30. Each Monday a link-up for the week’s topic will be posted at the host’s blog for you to link your posts throughout the week.

This week’s topic is: 

Week 2: (Nov. 4 to 8) – Book Pairing (host: Sarah @ Sarah’s Book Shelves). This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a ‘If you loved this book, read this!’or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story. 

I’ve recently read a couple of newly published historical novels that I think go well together with nonfiction books about the same subjects:

First, The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis, a novel I loved, pairing it with  Juliet Barker’s biography of the Brontë family, The Brontës

When I first came across The Vanished Bride I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to read it, as I’m never very keen on books about famous authors solving crimes. However, the Brontë sisters books have been amongst my favourites for years and I was curious find out what this book was all about. ‘Bella Ellis’ is the Brontë inspired pen name for the author Rowan Coleman, who has been a Brontë devotee for most of her life.

It is historical fiction set in 1845 about Charlotte, Emily and Anne and their brother, Branwell and how the sisters became ‘detectors’, or amateur sleuths as they investigate the disappearance of a young woman from Chester Grange, just across the moors from the Brontë Parsonage – which is, of course purely fiction. But it is not all pure fiction – in the Author’s Note Bella Ellis explains that it is based on biological facts or inspired by them.

Reading The Vanished Bride has inspired me to get back to reading the new edition of  The Brontës, Juliet Barker’s biography of the family.  I began reading (and never finished) it a few years ago. It is the result of 11 years’ research in archives throughout the world.  It contains a wealth of information, is illustrated and has copious notes and an index.

Juliet Barker is an internationally recognised expert on the Brontës and from 1983 to 1989 she was curator and librarian of the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Her qualifications are impeccable – she was educated at Bradford Girls’ Grammar School and St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she gained her doctorate in medieval history. In 1999 she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters by the University of Bradford, and in 2001 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. For more information see her website.

Then I thought of these two books –  A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier, a novel published this year and Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson published in 2007.

Both are about ‘Surplus Women‘ – nearly three-quarters of a million soldiers were killed during World War One, many of them unmarried young men, leaving a generation of women who had believed marriage to be their birthright without prospective husbands. 

A Single Thread focuses on one young woman, Violet whose fiancé, Laurence was killed in the First World War. Determined to be independent she leaves her mother and moves to Winchester, where she joins the Winchester Cathedral Broderers, a group of women dedicated to embroidering hassocks and cushions for the seats and benches. The difficulties of being independent are brought home to her as she struggles on her wages as a typist to pay for her lodgings, laundry and coal, let alone feed herself. And then her mother is admitted to hospital and she has to decide whether to return home to look after her.

Tracy Chevalier writes novels on a variety of subjects, carrying out meticulous research for each one. In this book she lists a number of the many resources she used, including details of Louisa Pesel’s embroidery work as well as the history of Winchester Cathedral, bell-ringing, 1930s women and life in Britain in the 1930s .

Singled Out, in contrast, is nonfiction, telling individual stories of how these ‘surplus women‘ coped with enforced spinsterhood. Tracing their fates, Virginia Nicholson shows how the single woman of the inter-war years had to depend on herself and, in doing so, helped change society. These women harboured harrowing secret sadness, yearning for the closeness of marriage and children. Beginning in 1919 the book traces their experiences across the next two decades as they faced life alone, looking at how they survived economically, emotionally and sexually. There is a note on the sources she used and a select bibliography, plus photographs and an index.

Virginia Nicholson’s father was the art historian and writer Quentin Bell, acclaimed for his biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf and her mother Anne Olivier Bell edited the five volumes of Virginia Woolf’s Diaries. In June 2019 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. The citation quoted Carmen Callil: “Virginia Nicholson is the outstanding recorder of British lives in the twentieth century.” For more information about see her website.

I have enjoyed looking at these pairs of books. Which books would you choose to compare?

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

 I’ve enjoyed all of Tracy Chevalier‘s books that I’ve read so far, so it was no surprise to me. to find that I loved her latest book, A Single Thread

A single thread

This is historical fiction, a mix of fact and fiction, set mainly in Winchester in the 1930s. It is a a simple straightforward story, beautifully written, with the emphasis on everyday life. The main character is Violet Speedwell, a single woman of 38, regarded by society as a ‘surplus woman’ unlikely to marry  because her fiancé, Laurence was killed in the First World War. The 1921 census revealed that there were 1.75 million more women than men in the UK.  Surplus women were patronised and were expected to stay at home looking after their elderly relatives, but at the age of 38 in 1932 Violet decides to leave her overbearing mother and move on her own to Winchester. There is a lot of information about embroidering cushions and kneelers for the the Choir stalls and Presbytery seats in the Cathedral and about bell-ringing, both of which formed integral parts of the book.

Violet knew nobody in Winchester, but whilst looking round the Cathedral she came across a group of women, calling themselves the Winchester Cathedral Broderers, dedicated to embroidering hassocks and cushions for the seats and benches. She joins the group, led by Miss Louisa Pesel (a real person) and the stern Mrs Biggins and as well as learning to embroider, she makes new friends. One of these friends is Gilda, who introduces her to two of the bell-ringers, Arthur, a older married man and a younger, unmarried man, called Keith.

She is determined to be independent, not relying on her mother or her brother to support her. So she finds a job as a typist and takes a room in house shared with two other women and her landlady, Mrs Harvey, who discourages male visitors other than family. The difficulties of being independent are brought home to Violet as she struggles on her wages to pay for her lodgings, laundry and coal, let alone feed herself. And then her mother is admitted to hospital and she has to decide whether to return home to look after her.

The characters are drawn with fine detail and the descriptions of the settings, particularly in the Cathedral are so clear that I could easily visualise both the building and its interior. I particularly liked the details about the embroidery and the stitches used. As the Nazi Party and Hitler rise to power in Germany, the use of fylfots in the embroidery designs are mistaken for swastikas which are ancient symbols of light and life and good fortune.

The book gives an detailed look at life between the two World Wars. It has a slow gentle pace following Violet’s new life, but there is a sense of change on the horizon as her relationship with Arthur develops.  It gives a lively picture of the difficulties of life for unmarried women, including Gilda and Dorothy’s unconventional relationship that they have to keep secret to avoid the prejudice this would attract. And there is an indication of the sense of unease in society as the threat of another war loomed. 

It is obvious throughout the book that Tracy Chevalier has meticulously carried out her research and in the acknowledgements she lists a number of the many resources she has used, including details of Louisa Pesel’s embroidery work as well as the history of Winchester Cathedral, bell-ringing, 1930s women and life in Britain in the 1930s .

My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my copy of this book for review.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1382 KB
  • Print Length: 353 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0008153817
  • Publisher: The Borough Press (5 Sept. 2019)
  • Source: Review copy from the publishers via NetGalley
  • My Rating: 4*