A charming whimsical fairy tale
Like one of the stained-glass windows in the cathedral, we gradually piece together a picture of the city and its inhabitants in The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers
The ‘cleaner’ of the title is Agnès Morel, who has been quietly keeping Chartres Cathedral in good order after having appeared in the city some 20 years before.
Through Agnès, we meet various characters, the Abbé Paul, who first found Agnès and of her protector,
Professor Jones, whose wife deserted him, the artist Robert Clément, for whom she sits, Abbé Bernard, who is tortured by the uncertainty of his own faith and Alain Fleury, the restorer whose work in the cathedral she comes to admire and through him gains a greater understanding of the ideas behind the original design. All these characters are touched by Agnès’ quiet and simplistic goodness in some way.
But Agnès has a secret past and the town busybody, Madame Beck, is determined to find her out and cause trouble for the innocent changeling who has landed in their midst. Interwoven with the daily events are details of Agnès’ past, which Salley Vickers gradually reveals and which gives the reader an understanding of why Agnès is the way she is and how circumstances have led to her ending up in Chartres.
The doctor who tended her in her teenage years unwittingly created trouble for her by misinterpreting a situation (or did he?), the nuns who looked after her created more misery for Agnès, and what of the farmer who found the young baby Agnès in a basket.
But somehow, in spite of all this, she has created a good life for herself and improves the lives of those around her.
Madame Beck’s futile attempts to undermine Agnès are rather pathetic and it is credit to Ms Vickers that even Madame Beck who has herself had a rather sad life, elicits some sympathy from the reader by the end.
An important part of the story is Chartres Cathedral, which stand imperious throughout, but which holds such fascination for Agnès. As with the architecture of Venice in Miss Garnet’s Angel, Salley Vickers infuses the cathedral with a mysticism that permeates the book. It doesn’t feel like a religious book, and yet it is set in a cathedral and there is a sense of redemption for both Agnès and many of the characters around her, suggesting some higher authority.
Without realising it, the reader is supplied with a host of characters and, as the story unfolds, we learn quite a lot about each one. Like one of the stained-glass windows in the cathedral, we gradually piece together a picture of the city and its inhabitants.
There are no deliberately evil people in Vickers’ world, just misunderstood ones, or those who take a situation and create misery from it, albeit in some cases reluctantly, or simply because they are unhappy and want other people to be unhappy too.
Salley Vickers has created a charming whimsical fairytale that explores both faith and love, but with a touch of realism, which conveys how life’s twists and turns can affect the decisions we make and how situations can be misread, and the impact that can have on individuals’ lives.
An easy read and quietly thought-provoking, this is definitely one to take on holiday or savour over a long weekend.