A new book by Salley Vickers is always a welcome event, particularly when it is as attractively produced as this one with its cover the same colour as the limestone from which the great cathedral of Chartres is constructed. In the Cleaner of Chartres, we are less concerned with the grandeur and majesty of this ancient monument so much as the people who live within its shadow; the clergy, the town’s-folk, the stone-masons and others who look after the fabric of the cathedral, and most importantly, a cleaner called Agnes Morel.
Agnes was a foundling, discovered lying in a basket among morel mushrooms (thus her surname) by a farmer, Jean Dupère who immediately took her to a convent in Evereux in Normandy. Her life with the nuns was stable enough but she was classed as a slow learner and remained illiterate despite an apparent flair for numbers. When she was 15 she became pregnant but was never quite able to explain who was the father of the child (we learn the dreadful circumstances of the conception later on). The baby was removed from her immediately after its birth and poor Agnes began to cut herself with knives and show other signs of inner disturbance.
In alternating chapters, Salley Vickers describes Agnes’s early life in Evreux and her present life in Chartres where after a difficult start, she makes a living taking on various cleaning jobs while sleeping in a spare room of a friend’s house. Through her work as a cleaner we learn of other residents of the town – men and women she cleans for including Philippe Nevers (a gay owner of a fashion boutique), the elderly Abbé Bernard who is losing both his faith and his mind, the vicious widow Madame Beck, Professor Jones, (a retired professor from Swansea) and Alain, a stone-mason who works at restoring the cathedral.
There is a great mystery about Agnes. Having suffered from acute post-partum depression after her baby was taken away, she apparently committed a serious crime and then spent time in a psychiatric hospital. Although she seems to be fully recovered now, the author creates an air of mystery around her. She seems to be a blank sheet of paper on which others write their own story and as we flashback to earlier scenes set in Evreux and Rouen we wonder if Agnes is all she seems to be. After her crisis a doctor, Denis Denan, takes an interest in her history and conducts investigations into her background including visits to the now elderly farmer who found the baby in a basket in the woods.
As I read the book I found myself fascinated by the way threads from past and present inter-weaved. We can see what the end is going to be quite early on, but the road there is complex and at times we think that things are not going to work out as we expected. The final chapters show that the author has indulged in some clever plotting and there is one particular denouement regarding Madame Beck which left me surprised that Salley Vickers didn’t make more of it. Having said that, perhaps a writer sometimes needs to infer something and to allow readers to complete the story in their own imaginations.
From the above, it would be possible to conclude that this is just a minor domestic saga with tons of French atmosphere for those who enjoy that sort of thing. However, The Cleaner of Chartres is rather more than that for there is a set of complex psychological unravellings going on here. Salley’s Wikipedia article tells us that she trained as a Jungian analytical psychotherapist and still lectures on the connections between literature and psychology. This is evident in the oblique way she comes at her characters, allowing the readers to discern their motivations through their conversations and small deeds (of either kindness or cruelty). The book provides more than a few “ahhh” moments when I found the book confirming my own understanding of life.
Salley Vickers has obviously immersed herself in the history of Chartres Cathedral and although one magazine reviewer didn’t like the way she keeps dropping small talks about the Cathedral into the mouths of her characters, I found it very interesting and found that it worked rather well. I particularly liked Alain the stone-mason who instructed Agnes in the history of the stained-glass windows and statues of the Cathedral.
Chartres is known for its labyrinth which draws visitors from all religions and nations and Alain tells Agnes how a labyrinth differs from a maze and how it illustrates the concept of the spiritual journey (or perhaps with Salley Vickers’ Jungian background, how it acts as a symbol of the unconscious).
A few months ago, Jenni Russell wrote in the Sunday Times,
Books have shown me how people struggle to make their existence meaningful, both in the past and in the present . . . The wealth of choices haunts everybody. Did I make the right one? How will others think of me? What did other people do? Fiction has a unique role in providing this understanding.
Books like The Cleaner of Chartres, perhaps “just a story” on the surface but full of meaning beneath it, work in this way and help us into a deeper understanding of human motivation. It would not be difficult to come up with a list of study questions which would keep a book-group happy for an evening; after all, the book covers some deep themes – the foundling child, the difficult transition through adolescence to adulthood, the power of forgiveness, the meaning of religious symbols in a world which no longer believes, the labyrinthine journey from birth to death, the redemptive power of new birth. Perhaps Salley Vickers’ philosophy of life echoes William Wordsworth’s in his sonnet about Philoctetes,
“And trust that spiritual Creatures round us move
Griefs to allay which Reason cannot heal
Yea, veriest reptiles have sufficed to prove
To fettered wretchedness, that no Bastile
Is deep enough to exclude the light of love,
Though man for brother man has ceased to feel…. “
Salley Vickers is of course known for Miss Garnet’s Angel, which has become a bit of a modern classic. It was first published in 2000 but continues to attract adulatory reviews from readers. I have not always been convinced by the author’s intervening books but I found The Cleaner of Chartres to be an enjoyable, occasionally profound read which could easily enjoy the same level of success as Miss Garnet.