The Cleaner of Chartres
"Salley Vickers is a novelist whose imaginative journey always promises magic and mystery. The Cleaner of Chartres shows her on top form in a rich weave of loss and redemption spiked with Ms Vickers' irrepressible wit."Robert McCrum, Book of the Year 2012, The Observer
There is something special about the ancient cathedral in Chartres, with its mismatched spires, astonishing stained glass and strange labyrinth. And there is something special too about Agnès Morel, the mysterious woman who is to be found cleaning it each morning.
No one quite knows where she came from - not the diffident Abbé Paul, who discovered her one morning twenty years ago, sleeping in the north porch; nor lonely Professor Jones, whose chaotic existence she helps to organise; nor Philippe Nevers, whose neurotic sister and newborn child she cares for; nor even the irreverent young restorer, Alain Fleury, who works alongside her each day and whose attention she catches with her tawny eyes, her colourful clothes and elusive manner. And yet everyone she encounters would surely agree that she has touched their lives in subtly transformative ways, even though they couldn't quite say how.
But with a chance meeting in the cathedral one day, the spectre of Agnès' past returns, provoking malicious speculation from the prejudiced Madame Beck and her gossipy companion Madame Picot. As the rumours grow more ugly, Agnès is forced to confront her history, and the mystery of her origins finally unfolds.
The Cleaner of Chartres is a compelling story of darkness and light; of traumatic loss and second chances. Infused throughout with deeper truths, The Cleaner of Chartres speaks of the power of love and mercy to transform the tragedies of the past.
Salley Vickers on Writing
All my books arise out of a dovetailing of events: usually something from the past (often the distant past) meets something in the present – and like a sperm meeting an ovum a new entity is born. That meeting of past and present, my own past as well as the deep past of history, was the genesis of my first novel, ‘Miss Garnet’s Angel’, and something very similar happened with ‘The Cleaner of Chartres’.
My parents were thoroughgoing atheists but they were cathedral-visiting atheists and as children, whenever we passed an ancient cathedral my brother and I were taken in and given an account of its history and invited to appreciate its art. Of all the many cathedrals we visited the one that most stayed in my mind was the great Gothic cathedral at Chartres. It was the stained glass I loved – the blue of a heaven I was assured did not exist – but I was also captivated by the strange labyrinth set into the floor of the nave. At the time I was told that this represented the path to the Kingdom of Heaven, a pleasing story, my parents suggested, but not one I should believe in.
So when my two sons were small, and we were passing Chartres, I, too, took them to see the Gothic masterpiece and to whet their appetites I told them about the strange labyrinth set in the floor. As good luck had it, the chairs that usually cover the nave had been cleared away and my two small sons raced each other to the centre, shouting in an unholy chorus, ‘We’ve reached the Kingdom of Heaven!”
The years passed. The jewelled glass and the mysterious labyrinth (whose true meaning is known in fact to no one) remained in my mind. Then last year, driving through France I saw Chartres signposted and on an impulse turned off my route. It was towards evening, so I decided to stay the night and early the following morning I walked over the cobbles and up to the cathedral.
It was well before the official opening time. But walking round to the North Porch, to look at the sculpture of poor Job, lying on his dung heap, I saw a door was open and stole inside. I stood in the great dim space and marvelled again at its majestic beauty. It seemed there was no one there but me and a pair of courting sparrows.
And then I saw I was not alone. Another presence was quietly cleaning the cathedral floor. And I thought to myself: What a wonderful job. You will know the cathedral with an intimacy available to no one else.
Into my mind, unbidden, came the figure of a young woman, nothing like the presence I had come across that morning but born out of the experience, a young woman haunted by a past that I wanted to find out about. So I went back to my hotel room and began ‘The Cleaner of Chartres’.