The British author, Salley Vickers, spins a women’s healing tale in her novel, The Cleaner of Chartres (2012). Set in the medieval town of Chartres, the twin spires of its world-renowned cathedral, dedicated to Our Lady, have imbued the lives of its residents and pilgrims praying at this sacred site since the fourth century, AD. This influence is also felt in this novel.

The protagonist, Agnes Morel, is an illiterate, single, fortyish woman whose penchant for bright colors enhances her swarthy skin and long black hair. A foundling, she was raised by the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in a neighboring town, and twenty years before, had made her way to Chartres to make a living. Her simple willingness continues touching everyone she serves. Besides cleaning for an old professor and the canon of the cathedral, posing for the local artist, babysitting, she also scrubs the labyrinth inside the west portal of the cathedral. Known only to her, however, burns a shameful experience. She is a woman of few words.

We also meet the antagonist, Madame Beck, a balding mean-spirited widow who frequents her “lace curtain watchtower” in her apartment in Old Town to observe the interactions of passersby below. In the eyes of Madame Beck, however, Agnes is too good. A chance discovery of old newspaper clippings that cast Agnes in a suspicious light sets loose Madame Beck’s gossip. Terrified, Agnes hides in the dark crypt of the cathedral, lest the authorities find her. In agony, she waits long hours, until discovered by Alain, a restoration expert working in the cathedral. A touching scene beneath the gaze of the Blue Virgin window gifts Agnes with the sense of her own motherhood.

Amazing synchronicities eventually reveal the resolution of Agnes’s shame and guilt and the cause of Madame Beck’s pique; the former restored to an even fuller life with Alain; and the latter, fresh truth about her poisonous attitude and the need for a retreat with a community of sisters.

Thus, evidence of transforming grace enhances each page of this novel. And the maternal hovering of Chartres Cathedral, itself, welcomes the reader into these sacred mysteries of the Feminine.

 

 

 

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