The Cleaner of Chartres
We often know the traits of Dickens’s characters as we read their names. In Salley Vickers’s The Cleaner of Chartres names don’t give away the game, but Vickers gives us insight into characters even as she introduces them. This Dickensian tale set in modern France even has its own Madame DeFarge and Madame Beck in this story and is also full of malice. (Fortunately Madame Beck does not knit). Helpfully, Vickers tells us the meaning of our cleaner’s name, Agnès Morel. Morel is for the mushroom, beloved by the old farmer who found her abandoned, in a basket, in his fields. Agnès means “lamb of God”, in this case a very Dickensian name. Agnès is indeed the lamb of God. She is forty when we meet her, humbly washing the floors of the great cathedral, which is the other great character of this book.
And there are many characters. The author introduces her characters early on and almost all at once in a natural, offhand way, the narrative passing effortlessly from the thoughts of one to the other as their paths weave together from day to day in the old town in and about the cathedral. Salley Vickers was a practicing psychoanalyst until the success of her first novel Miss Garnet’s Angel, and she has unsparing insight into the cleric, nuns, widows, workmen and barmaids of Chartres, regarding their foibles with humor and sympathy. We come to know them well.
We come to know Agnès well, but Agnès is nonetheless a mystery. She carries a dark secret and hides her shame. She is so silent the townspeople believe her to be stupid and give her odd jobs. The narrative of the novel alternates between the present, when, forty years old, her precarious mental state she is threatened by discovery, and twenty five years earlier, her teen years as an orphan in a convent and mental hospital, the story of her secret shame.
We pull for Agnès. While the townspeople take her for granted and think very little about her, she quietly goes about her tasks, listening to those who need solace and doing small things that make a difference in their lives, spreading God’s grace. Indeed, this reader wondered if she might be a revisitation by Saint Mary to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, so saintly is Agnès. But, as the dense plot unfolds, the characters become more than stereotypes, entertaining us at every twist and turn through the medieval town, up, under and through the great gothic masterwork of Chartres Cathedral.