Salley Vickers: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

A mop and bucket admit the novelist's new principal character into myriad lives. James Kidd meets her

In 2010, Salley Vickers was travelling through the French city of Chartres with a friend. One evening, the pair ended up in the local emergency room after her companion slipped and fell in his hotel bathroom, breaking three ribs. The next morning, a sleep-deprived Vickers found herself walking past Chartres's famous cathedral.

"I saw that the door to the north court was open. There was a woman cleaning the cathedral. I thought, What a wonderful job. If you are cleaning a great cathedral you will know it with an intimacy that nobody else can. You will be like the nurse for that cathedral, or its mother. You will give it your closest attention."

It is perhaps appropriate that both Vickers and her new novel, The Cleaner of Chartres are fascinated by the idea of beginnings. "I think we are all in search of our origins. That is what science is doing – looking at the origins of the human race, of matter, of time. Historians are look for origins. They are fundamental." One could add to this list Vickers's previous profession of psychoanalyst. Although she prefers to cite Alain, a character in the novel, who is restoring the cathedral's ceiling. "He is very carefully peeling back layers, uncovering the original, which, of course, is a little bit like what you do in psychoanalysis."

We meet on a brisk, clear morning near Vickers's home in Notting Hill. At first, she seems slightly nervous. If she is uncomfortable with the interview process, she is able to laugh at her unease. "I love work. When I am immersed in a novel, I am extremely happy. When I finish, I am generally unhappy. I miss the characters. But I am also extremely worried to leave them in the brutal hands of the press or the indifferent hands of the readers."

Vickers positively twinkles. She can be forthright: for example, on the subject of her popular perception, which has largely been determined by the phenomenal, word-of-mouth success of her debut, Miss Garnet's Angel. "I am a much darker writer than I get presented as being. Because my first book was about an angel, people think it must be sweet and soft-centred. I'm quite spiky. I want to convey the dark as well as the light." Yet, as she warms to the conversation, she answers questions with prodigious care and a wry sense of humour and draws parallels between her work and her life. Not all are entirely serious.

"I went to a school where all the girls had a lot more money than we did," she says, tucking into a pain au chocolat. "My father wouldn't raise my allowance. So he said, if you want more money you have to work for it. I worked with my boyfriend, cleaning bedsits in Earls Court. It was very interesting."

Although this career path didn't extend far, Vickers never lost the cleaning bug. "I am rather good at it. Particularly when I am writing a novel, I spend a lot of time cleaning. I think it is partly procrastination and partly superstition. I want everything to be beautiful in my environment. I don't want a dirty saucepan impinging on my imagination." But her desk is apparently surrounded by dictionaries, the works of Shakespeare, pictures and a plentiful supply of pencils. "Cluttered but clean is my motto."

Motifs of cleaning and clutter resonate throughout her new novel. At various times they suggest the march of history, the desire for redemption, the instability of memory and the traces characters leave on the environment and people around them. The universality of the job of the central character, Agnès Morel, means she touches the lives of many Chartres inhabitants, from the cathedral's abbé to the local dog-walker.

Agnès is both an orphan and a mother, in search of her lost parents and lost child: pregnant at 15, she has her baby taken away by the nuns whose convent is her home. After a breakdown, she repairs to Chartres where she becomes a target for Mesdames Beck and Picout, two lonely gossips. Hope is offered by the kindly abbé, an expat Welsh professor, and Alain, the restorer and Agnès's soulmate-in-waiting.

After her brush with the French ER, Vickers returned to Chartres to write the novel proper. She felt entirely at home, having visited the town for most of her life. Vickers was first taken as a child by her parents. "They were communists and always atheists. But they had an atheist's love of cathedrals, which is very English. Henry James said, you don't have to be religious to find solace in a great church." Years later, Vickers took her own two sons to see the famous 13th-century labyrinth in the nave. "I told them that the meaning of the labyrinth was the path to the kingdom of heaven, which is probably not true. My children rushed to the centre, and shouted, 'I have got to the kingdom of heaven!'"

Vickers shares her parents' religious scepticism, but believes that everybody has a religious dimension. "I think there is something in human consciousness that responds to the other-worldly. Sometimes that is expressed through art or science or music, but I think it is there."

As a psychoanalyst, she attempted to understand another person's mystery. As a novelist, she unravels the mysteries within herself. "We are all a crowd [of characteristics and personalities]. But we don't necessarily know our crowd. Getting to know your crowd is one of the interesting things about being an analyst and a novelist. People sometimes imagine novelists are writing about their life. I think they are never writing about their lived life. They are writing about lives they haven't lived."

'The Cleaner of Chartres' is published by Penguin, priced £16.99

The Cleaner of Chartres, By Salley Vickers

Viking £16.99

'First of all we vacuum off the accumulated grime. Most of that comes from centuries of candle smoke. Then we apply chemical processes to lift off the more engrained dirt and the grease. There's a lot of that. Then there's a further cleaning process at the micro level, a sort of gentle abrasive technique, not unlike what fashionable women have done to their skin, I hear. Probably not unlike what you do for floors. Just a bit more refined."

Comments