Book Review: The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

the cleaner of Chartres

From the author of Miss Garnet’s Angel, a story of the redemptive power of love and community in the famous French cathedral town

There is something very special about Agnès Morel. A quiet presence in the small French town of Chartres, she can be found cleaning the famed medieval cathedral each morning and doing odd jobs for the townspeople. No one knows where she came from or why. Not Abbé Paul, who discovered her one morning twenty years ago, sleeping on the north porch, and not Alain Fleury, the irreverent young restorer who works alongside her each day and whose attention she catches with her tawny eyes and elusive manner. She has transformed each of their lives in her own subtle way, yet no one suspects the dark secret Agnès is hiding.

When an accidental encounter dredges up a series of tragic incidents from Agnès’s youth, the nasty meddling of town gossips threatens to upend the woman’s simple, peaceful life. Her story reveals a terrible loss, a case of mistaken identity, and a cruel and violent act that haunts her past. Agnès wrestles with her own sense of guilt and enduring heartbreak while the citizens piece together the truth about her life.

Paper copy from my book group. Regular readers know that I dont usually go into such great depth as to plot lines etc in my reviews, but I built the following review as I went along. It has been culled (honest!) but is still perhaps too long and contains too many spoilers for which I apologise. Having read the post multiple times, and culled much, I struggled to find more I could cut.

Told from multiple viewpoints in various timeframes, this is ultimately about Agnès Morel and how she has been served by her community – and how she serves them.   Agnès has been living in Chartres for twenty years, helping its various residents with cleaning, baby-sitting and domestic work. We meet her on the morning that she agrees to take on the cleaning of the cathedral floor. No one knows quite where Agnès comes from after Abbé Paul discovered her one morning sleeping in the north porch of the Cathedral. Over the course of the novel, we learn of her traumatic past.…

The history

Agnès was abandoned as a baby and discovered in a wood by a local farmer, Jean Dupère, in a shopping basket. She is dark skinned, it is hinted possibly of Algerian parentage, but the only clue to her identity is a turquoise earring left with her in the basket. Dupère gives her to be raised by the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy at Evreux. Although bright (and, we later learn, with an uncanny gift for numbers) Agnès never learns to read or write and instead works on the domestic side for the convent. At fifteen, to the Sisters’ shock, she is found to be pregnant. The father is never identified and the child is taken from her as soon as it is born. Traumatised, Agnès begins to cut herself and, after appearing naked and brandishing a knife in the Mother Superior’s room, she is placed in a psychiatric clinic in Rouen under the care of Dr Deman.

In search of help from her past, Dr Deman makes contact with Jean Dupère and invites him to visit Agnès in the hope that his appearance may help Agnès to heal. The elderly farmer arrives with the earring to find Agnès comatose. Distressed he hurries away leaving the earring with Deman. Meanwhile, a new Australian nurse, Maddy, provides Deman with information of a mixed race baby who has been adopted by a nearby celebrity couple and who fits the likely appearance and age of Agnès’ own missing child. Shortly after, news comes of an attack on the child’s nanny, who has been stabbed, and Agnès appears to confess to the assault, insisting that the baby under the nanny’s care was Agnès’ own. Her testimony is unclear but she is transferred to a secure hospital in Le Mans and placed under the supervision of Dr Inez Nezat.

Deman feels guiltily responsible for this turn of events. Even though Agnès cannot read, he feels sure that she would never have made any connection with the nanny and child if he had not written their address on her file. He has a series of meetings with Nezat and manages to reintroduce Agnès to Jean Dupère who gives her the mysterious earring for her sixteenth birthday. Deman and Maddy, convinced by now that Agnès is innocent of the alleged crime, persuade Agnès to change her story. Eventually, the authorities agree to return Agnès to the clinic under the supervision of Deman. Here she sees again the picture of the mysterious labyrinth in the cathedral in Chartres that hangs in his study and with which she has always been fascinated.

After some time she is agreed to have been ‘cured’ and goes to live with Jean Dupère until he dies of cancer when Agnes is 19.  Inspired by a picture of the labyrinth, Agnès makes her way to Chartres. And so we discover how she came to be found, twenty years ago, in the Cathedral porch by Abbé Paul.

The now

Besides cleaning the cathedral, Agnès has been helping local Professor Jones sort through his past and agrees to clean for the gossipy and malicious Madame Beck. Working at the Cathedral each day, Agnès has become friends with the local restorer Alain Fleury, who is part of the cathedral’s restoration team. Madame Beck is scandalised one day to see Agnès in Alain’s arms. Although Alain was innocently helping Agnès down from the scaffold, it is clear that there is a romantic element to their friendship.

One day, Beck’s friend Madame Picot visits with her dog Piaf. While Beck is out of the room, Picot knocks a brown-skinned china doll off a side table and it breaks on the hearth. She quickly hides the evidence. Beck is a collector of these dolls and when she discovers that her doll is missing, she immediately accuses Agnès of stealing it. Agnès denies the theft but agrees to pay for the doll’s replacement. Leaving her employment with Beck, Agnès instead takes up the offer to clean for Abbé Paul. Beck is determined to poison Paul against Agnès, but despite her repeated visits to warn him against her, Paul sees through Beck’s small-minded accusations. Picot returns the doll to her friend’s house after getting it repaired but without appreciating the consequences her actions might have on Agnès.

Two of Sisters of Mercy, Mother Veronique and Sister Laurence, who were involved in Agnès’ past, are visiting Chartres to see the Holy Relic and are delighted to meet Agnès there. In the course of their visit, Mother Veronique is humiliated by Alain Fleury’s superior knowledge of the cathedral and, in order to reassert herself, shares her knowledge of Agnès’ traumatic past with Madame Beck, who has ingratiated herself with the nuns. Beck is thrilled to hear of the assault on the nanny. Again, she approaches Paul, insisting that Agnès should not be allowed to work in the cathedral.

Paul’s elderly colleague, the Abbé Bernard, has been gradually losing his mind. One afternoon, Agnès follows the Cathedral cat René down into the crypt where she discovers the Abbé Bernard in great distress: he thinks he has seen Beelzebub in the shape of a dog. Agnès comforts him, giving him her turquoise earring as a ward against evil. But the dog turns out to be real enough. It is Piaf, Madame Picot’s dog, who has escaped while in the care of Agnès’ friend Terry. Agnès is able to return Piaf to Terry, who is in turn able to return the dog to her distressed owner, Madame Picot. This happy turn of events is quickly followed by the shocking death of Abbé Bernard, who drowns himself in the river.

Many years ago, Agnès used to baby-sit a brother and sister, Philippe and Brigitte Nevers. Now Brigitte has a young baby, Max, and Philippe has persuaded Agnès to help Brigitte, who is struggling to care for Max and behaving negligently. Max spends a weekend in Agnès’ care, but the following day Philippe reports that Max has been taken to hospital with a broken wrist. Suspicion immediately falls on Agnès.

Madame Beck receives a file of clippings about Agnès’ possible past involvement in the attack on the nanny from Mother Veronique. As suspicions against her mount, Agnès disappears, only to be found later by Alain   in the Cathedral Crypt, having taken sleeping pills. As she drifts out of consciousness, she remembers the trauma of being raped when she was fifteen, with the resulting pregnancy. Alain rescues Agnès and when she wakes the following morning in Abbe Paul’s house, she confides her past to the Abbé, explaining how she stole her file from Dr Deman and got a friend to read the address he’d written there.

She confesses that she believed the adopted baby to have been her own and that she did indeed stab the nanny, as well as hurting Max. She asks the Abbé if she should give herself up to the police. This is a key moment in the narrative. Paul decides that she has suffered enough already and that a further confession will help no one. It is enough that she has confided the truth to him.

Meanwhile, all of the misinformation and suspicion surrounding Agnès is being dispelled. Terry has explained to Madame Picot that it was, in fact, Agnès who found her dog Piaf. In turn, Madame Picot decides to reveal to Madame Beck that it was she who broke her doll. Mother Veronique, meanwhile, writes to Madame Beck to say that she regrets sending the clippings about Agnès’ past and implicating her in the stabbing. Philippe Nevers confronts his sister about her son Max’s injuries and exposes the lies she’s been telling and her culpability for Max’s mistreatment.

Madame Beck makes a visit to the Abbé’s in order to reiterate her accusations against Agnès. While there, she sees the earring and recognises it as the survivor of a pair given to her by her late husband. However, Paul stoutly denies that it belongs to her. Chastened by his dismissal, Madame Beck returns home only to discover the earring she believed missing is still in her jewel box. It was, she is sure, taken by an Algerian waitress who worked in her husband’s restaurant and with whom we realise he was having an affair. Unaware that she has unwittingly revealed Agnès’ parentage, and believing that she may be demented, she writes to Mother Veronique to seek sanctuary at the convent.

There is an afterward that reveals what happens to the principal characters in the book, including Agnes and Alain.

About the Author

Salley Vickers was born in Liverpool, the home of her mother, and grew up as the child of parents in the British Communist Party. Her father was a trade union leader and her mother a social worker. She won a state scholarship to St Paul’s Girls’ School and went on to read English at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she is currently a Royal Literary Fund fellow.

She has worked, variously, as a cleaner, a dancer, an artist’s model, a teacher of children with special needs, a university teacher of literature and a psychoanalyst. Her first novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, became an international word-of-mouth bestseller and a favourite among book clubs and reading groups. She now writes full time and lectures widely on many subjects, particularly the connections between, art, literature, psychology and religion.

Her principal interests are opera, bird watching, dancing and poetry, to which her father introduced her at an early age. Her name Salley, the Irish for ‘willow’, comes from a poem by her father’s favourite poet, W B Yeats, called ‘Down by the salley gardens’, once set to music by Benjamin Britten.

She has two adult sons and three grandchildren, with whom she spends as much time as she possibly can.

Additional Resources

https://www.penguin.com.au/products/9780670922123/cleaner-chartres/315441/reading-notes

 

 

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