The Cleaner of Chartres
add to cart
The medieval cathedral of Notre-Dame in Chartres is the centerpiece of the small French town, and its spires and remarkable stained glass have inspired and enchanted visitors for hundreds of years. But there is another jewel in the town of Chartres. For the past twenty years, Agnès Morel and her understated grace and goodness have touched the lives of many. Agnès is a quiet presence who cleans the magnificent cathedral and helps out wherever and whenever she is needed. Yet beneath Agnès's quiet demeanor is a tale of suffering and sadness, unknown to any of the inhabitants of Chartres. The story of her past—and what brings that past to light—is at the heart of Salley Vickers's new novel, The Cleaner of Chartres. Vickers, the celebrated author of the bestselling Miss Garnet's Angel, has crafted an intimate and captivating story that explores faith and forgiveness, judgment and redemption. Agnès is indispensable to the life of the town, yet no one can remember exactly how or why she arrived in Chartres; she is as steady and enduring a presence as the cathedral itself. But a small lie told between two old friends makes Agnès the target of the town gossip, Madame Beck, a bitter and lonely widow who becomes determined to ruin Agnès's reputation. A chance encounter between Madame Beck and a haughty, indiscreet nun from Agnès's childhood provides just the right opportunity, exposing Agnès's dark and distressing history and making her the chief suspect in a crime against one of the town's children. In following Agnès's journey, The Cleaner of Chartres examines difficult questions of guilt and innocence: How long should a person be judged by their past actions? How do we rebuild trust? Can a person's character truly change?
Alternating between present-day Chartres, Agnès's youth spent in a convent and a series of hospitals and the detective work of psychiatrist Dr. Deman, Vickers offers a multifaceted narrative of Agnès's life—the person she was and the person she has become, detailing the painful struggle that separates the two.
Vickers has a keen eye for emotional detail and a delicate, nuanced style that balances wit, tenderness and suspense. The Cleaner of Chartres includes an artful, unexpected twist, dramatically altering readers' understanding of two of the main characters and revealing connections that are generations deep. With her vivid and varied cast of characters, Vickers evokes a place and culture that will entrance readers, sweeping them up in a story of heartbreak and healing, demonstrating the power of friendship and the resilience of the human spirit.
Salley Vickers is a former university professor of literature and Jungian psychotherapist. Vickers's first novel, Miss Garnet's Angel, was a book club favorite and an international bestseller. She lives in London and is currently Royal Literary Fund fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, UK. Visit www. salleyvickers.com. Twitter @SalleyVickers.
Q. What was the genesis of this story?
My parents were committed atheists—but luckily for me they were cathedral-going atheists and took me to most of the important European cathedrals. Of them all, Chartres was the most enchanting. The heavenly blue of the glass and the mysterious labyrinth captured my imagination and stayed there in the repository of memory. Later, on family holidays in France, I took my children to see the cathedral, and on one occasion we arrived with the floor of the nave cleared of chairs so that the labyrinth set in the floor by the great west doors was fully visible. They rushed round it shouting "We're going to the Kingdom of heaven! We're going to the Kingdom of heaven!" There was a bit of an argument about who had reached it first, I seem to remember.
Then in 2011, I was driving through central France with a friend and I had a sudden impulse to revisit the cathedral. Early the following morning, I went up to the cathedral close, before the official opening hour. A side door was ajar and I went inside. At first I thought I was alone and then I saw there was another presence: a cleaner quietly cleaning the floor. There and then my cleaner of Chartres (I should say, an altogether different sort of person to the real life presence I had stumbled upon) was born.
Q. Have you been to Chartres? What was it that drew you to this cathedral in particular?
See above. But of course having conceived my character, I had to go back to Chartres to write the novel. I am very particular about place. Whatever else people may think of my books I believe they will find all the physical details of place are accurate.
Q. Some of the plot points in your earlier novel Miss Garnet's Angel hinged on the architecture and imagery of the Catholic Church. Considering the importance of the cathedral of Chartres to Agnès, would it be fair to say that you believe in the spiritual power of place?
I do believe in the power of place and have written a lot about this. There are "thin places"—where the membrane of life seems porous to other dimensions. Delphi, in Greece, where the ancient oracle was located, is one such place I've written about. The Chiesa dell'Angelo Raffaele in Venice is another. Chartres was almost certainly a sacred place long before it was Christian. You can feel it in the atmosphere, which goes beyond any specific religious denomination.
Q. Does faith play a role in your life?
I'm cautious about how I answer this because I believe faith is a private matter. But I think anyone reading my novels will notice that I am very interested in matters of faith. And I believe that faith, psychologically, is good for us. Having faith in oneself, in the good, in the value of life itself can only be of benefit. I am not cynical or jaundiced even though I've had experience of great wrong and insight into the harm human beings can—and will—do.
Q. The Cleaner of Chartres is made up of multiple narrative threads, taking place in Agnès's present life in Chartres, scenes from her youth and the experiences of Dr. Deman. How did you manage these various plots while maintaining the novel's sense of suspense?
The structure of the book arose quite naturally—but once I had finished it, I saw that it loosely followed the pattern on the labyrinth. I have always liked working with two timelines as I feel that the timeline of life is not a simple ongoing narrative but wanders back and forth as our consciousness returns to the past, through memory, and leaps ahead to the future, through speculation or hope. The human mind is a much less straightforward affair than we behave as if we suppose it is.
Q. Redemption is the keynote to this novel. Do you believe that everyone and every act can be redeemed?
Ah, redemption. I worry about that word because it can sound glib. But, yes, I do believe that we are redeemable—that we can recover, even learn, from quite terrible trauma. Human beings are phenomenally adaptable and that is both to our good and bad. We can perpetrate great harm and great good—and both are within our potential. But not everything can be redeemed. There are things too terrible to recover from and no one should ever act as if recovery is a given in life. It is a possibility. When it happens it is what some might call grace.
Q. Madame Beck is a miserable old woman who seems to exist only for her doll collection and the satisfaction of malicious gossip. While most of us wouldn't take it to the extreme that Madame Beck does, people do seem to take pleasure in talking about the lives of others, whether it be about celebrities, strangers or friends. Drawing on your background as a psychoanalyst, what is it about human nature that finds gossip so delicious?
Gossip is something I try not to be tempted into, though it is undeniably alluring. We all like gossip up to a point. But for some it can become a principal hold on life and then it is almost always dangerous. It's also a displacement activity, becoming over-involved in others' lives rather than leading our own. Madame Beck, of course, is a very unhappy woman. For all her malice, and envy, I hope readers will find a grain of sympathy for her by the end. She's not a villain—just a very miserable, thwarted person.
Q. You have a diverse career, spanning everything from the arts to education to psychoanalysis. Does each of these professions contribute to your writing in some way?
The wonderful thing about being a novelist is that absolutely everything that you do, or that happens to you, is valuable material. Of course being a psychoanalyst gave me a very privileged insight into what I can only call—if this doesn't sound too pompous—the human condition. But what it did most for me was encourage me to find in myself other strands of being with whom my patients could easily commune. I found unlived elements in my own being out of which to conduct a dialogue with people very unlike myself—or with very different lived experiences. This has been invaluable in allowing characters to form and emerge from within my being, rather than taking them from without from actual people. And being a teacher, a mother and a grandmother, of course gives you an unbeatable range of experience. I've always said that children are our best teachers.
Q. Have you begun working on your next project?
I'm superstitious so I never say what is cooking in case it boils over or gets burnt. But there are always things I am pondering, waiting for the right moment to come into being when luck or circumstances meet.
- Do you know anyone like Agnès who seems to be all things to everybody and who is vital to the functioning of the lives of others?
- Why does Agnès move to Chartres in the first place?
- The Cleaner of Chartres has a large cast of characters. Choose one and describe him/her in three words. Is there a moment in the novel that best conveys their personality?
- What is the source of Madame Beck's initial ill will toward Agnès? At what point in the novel does Madame Picot's opinion diverge from that of her friend? What event changes her attitude?
- In how many ways do the themes of faith, friendship and compassion manifest themselves in the novel?
- What is the true nature of the relationship between Madame Beck and Agnès?
- Do you have a place in your life that provides psychological comfort as the cathedral does for Agnès?
- How do we judge the strength of a person's character? If we were to look deep enough, do you believe it would be possible to find something shameful in everyone's personal history?
- Have you had your own experience either seeking redemption or bestowing forgiveness?