Library Director’s Notebook
It’s often hard to tell when reading The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers in what period of time it is set. This is a good thing, from the reader’s point of view, because there are certain universal and timeless aspects of this complex story that would resonate with people today, a hundred years past, or a hundred years in the future.
Set in the town of Chartres with its magnificent cathedral and many old, even ancient buildings, The Cleaner of Chartres follows the mysterious and compelling life of Agnes, a humble yet attractive woman discovered sleeping in the North Porch of the cathedral by the Abbe. Moved by her situation, Abbe Paul does all he can to find her a job and a place to live. Eventually the hard working Agnes finds work as a cleaner, including cleaning the beautiful Cathedral. Although virtually nothing is known about Agnes’ past ,she makes several loyal friends, including the Abbe, with her quiet and compassionate manner and her uncomplaining labors.
Yet not everyone is enamored of Agnes. Madame Beck, a sour and sanctimonious widow whose home gives her an excellent view of the Cathedral, is annoyed with the attention Agnes receives and is determined to find out something to discredit her. At first content merely to speculate and gossip with her neighbor Madame Picot about Agnes’ relations with various males in the town, including the clergy, Madame Beck soon accuses Agnes of theft and works hard to have her dismissed from the Cathedral. Some disingenuous words by a visiting nun who resented Agnes when she was a ward of her convent starts a firestorm of serious accusations about Agnes that spreads quickly through the town.
Even some of Agnes’ friends are dismayed to hear the rumors of her past which, at a distance of 20 years, are difficult to prove or disprove. Agnes herself is loathe to join the fight and feels that her safe haven is being threatened beyond reprieve. But some of Agnes’s truest friends, from her present and her past, are determined to get at the truth. What follows is the uncovering of a sad and frightening story of Agnes’s youth and an act of violence in her past that casts a long shadow. Yet also evident in this psychologically perceptive novel is the redemptive, remedial power of honesty and love.