The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

How lovely it is to fall into the hands of a natural storyteller, who tells her story with such lovely and well-chosen words and with such understanding of every element of her story.

And when she sets her story around the beautiful and historic cathedral at Chartres, well that really is the icing on the cake.

Agnès Morel and was found by Abbé Paul on a rainy night. Sleeping peacefully in the porch of the cathedral. She wouldn’t say where she came from, indeed she wouldn’t say anything about her past.

She found a place to live, helping  her elderly landlady in lieu of rent, and she found bits and pieces of work. Cleaning mainly – just enough to get her by. She lived quietly, making just a few friends, but her eccentric dress and strange demeanour did attract a little attention.

When the cathedral’s elderly cleaner began to struggle with his work, the Abbè Paul asked Agnès to help. That gave her respectability and she was offered more jobs  – organising the papers of Professor Jones,  babysitting Philippe Nevers’ young nephew.

Agnès took on every job that she was offered. She liked to be busy, and to be needed.

While she was cleaning the cathedral, Agnès met Alain, who was working on the restoration. He was smitten, but she felt awkward and didn’t know what to do.

All of this had a natural charm, and it was brought to life by a wonderful mis of characters, all real and recognisable. Salley Vickers shone a soft light on their hearts and minds, just enough to illuminate them. I saw their hopes, I saw their fears, and I understood.

But others were less taken with Agnès. Madame Beck, jealous of the attention that she attracts and taking a dim view of her reticence,  askedAgnès to clean for her. Just so that she can keep an eye on her.

In time, inevitably, Madame Beck found something amiss. She blamed Agnès, and she sets about digging up her past to make her point. And when she met a nun from the convent where Agnès was raised, then she knew she was right. But was she?

Agnès had a painful past, and her story was threaded through the stories of the people of Chartres. A strange juxtaposition, but it worked.

It allowed Sally Vickers to paint all sides of humanity: generosity, selfishness, malice, greed, fear, courage, humour …

The story was beautifully written, the setting so very well evoked, and the history of Chartres came into play quite naturally.

The heroine was a little elusive, but her story was so extraordinary that I think that was probably for the best.

It did leave a gap though. And that’s the one thing that makes The Cleaner of Chartres a little less than perfect.

A Lunch-time Vacation

When you work in a small office in a small harbour town there is nowhere in particular to go at lunch-time on days like today, when the sky is grey and the wind is swirling.

And so I seized the the chance to escape for a little while at my desk, courtesy of a lovely new stand-alone short story: Vacation by Salley Vickers.

I was pulled into the world of a young couple about to go on holiday: Beth and Hamish were heading to the Hebrides where his late father had grown up.

But a spanner was thrown into the works. Hamish’s step-father had died and his mother, Una, had invited herself along for the trip. Beth was not best pleased; she that there had been many times when Hamish had needed his mother and she hadn’t been there.

They bickered, but in the end Beth accepted what Hamish had known from the start. There was no easy solution, and Una would be going to the Hebrides too.

The two women had very different ideas of what to do on holiday. Very different ideas about most things. So when Hamish was called away, to deal with a crisis at work, he wondered what might happen.

Two women in a small remote cottage.

What would Hamish find on his return … ?

It’s a simple story, but it’s beautifully and carefully observed, the characters are nicely drawn, and the situation they find themselves in is utterly believable.

The dialogue rang true – I could hear the voices in my head – and there was just enough to make the story distinctive without losing its realism.

It was evident the Salley Vickers has a good ear, a sharp eye, and fine judgement.

If only I could have stayed in the Hebrides a little longer. The ending came much too quickly. Though it could just be that I want to start work again.

I don’t usually read digital books – and this story is only available that way – but I decided I could read a short story from my computer screen, just this once.

Because I’ve only read one of Salley Vickers’ novels and, even though I liked it, her others have been sitting on a shelf unread for quite some time. This story was going to tell me whether I should move them up or down my list of reading priorities.

I knew the answer, and the extract from the forthcoming novel, The Cleaner of Chartres, that came as a little bonus confirmed it.

The answer was up!

Another town, a new bookshop … and now I need more bookshelves …

If you have ever visited Cornwall, or if you ever plan on visiting Cornwall, there are a lot of places you might want to see. St Michael’s Mount, The Eden Project, The Minack Theatre, Jamaica Inn, Tintagel, Lanhydrock House, The Lost Gardens of Heligan, The Tate St Ives, The National Seal Sanctuary….

But, unless you have a particular interest in mining history you probably wouldn’t choose to visit Redruth. It’s a grey, inland, impoverished former mining town. But you really, really should go there.

Why? To visit The Redruth Bookshop. I read a while back that it was Cornwall’s largest secondhand bookshop and realised I needed to investigate. Last week I did. It looked unremarkable from outside, but when we went in we discovered that it went, back and back and back, and that it was packed full of wonderful books. I could have brought home a car full, but I was restrained and settled for these:

Recent paperback fiction was at the front of the shop. I picked up Devil by the Sea by Nina Bawden to add to my Virago bookcase, plus the first three novels by Salley Vickers. I knew as soon as I discovered her not so long ago that I would want to read and own all of her work so it was lovely to find three lined up. And older editions with lovely covers. 

And as I went further back in the shop I found the older books. 

Back at the beginning of the year everyone seemed to be reading Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster. The library had a copy, but I was in the middle of an ordering ban, and virtuously stuck too it. And maybe virtue was rewarded, because I found a very pretty edition from the 1930s. 

I have an unread copy of Peyton Place tucked away. I remembered Verity writing warmly about it not so long ago, and mentioning that Grace Metalious had written a sequel that was now out of print. So when I spotted a copy of that sequel I had to pick it up. 

And then there was a trio of books by Virago authors that Virago has not seen fit to reissue. The Bridge by Pamela Frankau (in a very pretty 1950s dust jacket), Alone We Embark by Maura Laverty (a wartime economy edition) and Potterism by Rose MacCaulay (a tragi- farcical tract!). All look wonderful. 

I recognised the name Norman Collins, because Penguin reissued his book London Belongs To Me last year. So I picked up Bond Street Story, and the opening paragraphs painted such a wonderful picture of the rush hour in London (I love Cornwall, but sometimes I miss my old London life) that I really couldn’t put it down again. 

Now it probably won’t come as news that I love Margery Sharp‘s writing. So imagine my delight at finding THREE of her books to add to my collection – The Foolish Gentlewoman, Britannia Mews and Cluny Brown. 

Now here is where I was really restrained. There were six books by Monica Dickens that I hadn’t come across before, but I made myself select just one. The Heart of London was the winner and looks absolutely wonderful. 

And finally there was an elderly copy of An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott. It was only 50p, so of course it came home. It missed the photocall because my mother pounced on it. She says that it is lovely – and I hope to get it back one day! 

That’s it! And I shall be looking for an excuse to visit Redruth again very soon…

I am reading ….. lots of books!

Tidying up yesterday, I was a litle more thorough than usual. And I put all of the books that I was reading in one pile. I was started to find that there were nine of them. Maybe a little excessive, but I need a choice. Some books have to be read slowly, with intervals between chapters to ponder. And I need to be able to pick up the right book for the right mood – or the right degree of concentration.

Here’s just a little about each of the nine:

I’m reading Georgette Heyer for the Classics Circuit. I had intended to read a regency novel, but I found a selection of her crime books on offer (3 for £5!) and they called me much louder. I picked No Wind of Blame to read first and I am loving it. A wonderful golden age mystery. And I’ll be posting about it on Thursday.

I have only just discovered Salley Vickers and I am smitten. Isn’t it lovely to find a new author with a backlist to explore?! Mr Golightly’s Holiday is both charming and clever, and definitely a book to be read slowly and savoured.

The first six Bloomsbury Group novels have been on my shelf for a while now. Even though I own two of them in Virago editions. I try not to be a completist, but sometimes I just can’t help it. I kept meaning to pick one up, but I couldn’t decide, and they were all books that I felt had to be read at just the right moment. But this week, after seeing a copy of Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker in the library I just had to pull out my copy and start reading. I am pleased to be able to confirm that this book is a gem!

Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida caught my eye in the library on Saturday. The concept and the opening were so engaging that I brought it home and started to read straight away. I’ll finish it tonight and so I’ll save my thoughts for tomorrow.

The Old Curiosity Shop is this years Dickens. I’m progressing slowly and steadily, which I find to be the best way to read Dickens.

The Virago Modern Classics group on Good Reads has been reading Elizabeth Taylor in February. I picked up A Game of Hide and Seek and I am loving it, but I think it’s more of a summer book and so I am going to put it on hold for a while. And March is Rosamond Lehmann month, so I have picked up The Weather in the Streets instead.

Daphne Du Maurier writes warmly of Love In The Sun by her friend Leo Walmesley. A few chapters in I can see why. A semi autobiographical story of a young couple who set up home together in Cornwall, it is simple, honest, and quite lovely. I suspect that I will be campaigning for it to be reissued very soon!

A Grain of Sand by Erma Harvey Jones is a memoir of growing up in Cornwall between the wars. I hadn’t intended to bring it home just yet, but when I read the first page I just had to. It captures both the magic and the reality of Cornwall just perfectly.

Helen Simonson’s debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand arrived from Bloomsbury a few weeks ago. It’s a lovely book, another to be read slowly and savoured, but I’m nearly done. And I shall miss the Major when he goes.

And that’s it. Each a great book in it’s own way.

So now tell me, how many books are you reading? Do you like to have a choice on hand, or do you prefer to focus on one book at a time?

Library Loot

Marg is coordinating Library Loot this week.

I’m still trying to keep my library pile under control,so just three books came home this week:

The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick

“Based on fact, this is the story of William Marshal, the greatest knight of the Middle Ages, unsurpassed in the tourneys, adeptly manoeuvring through the colourful, dangerous world of Angevin politics to become one of the most powerful magnates of the realm and eventually regent of England. From minor beginnings and a narrow escape from death in childhood, William Marshal steadily rises through the ranks to become tutor in arms to the son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. A champion on the tourney field, William must face the danger and petty jealousy targeting a royal favourite. Dogged by scandal, banished from court, his services are nevertheless sought throughout Europe and when William’s honour is vindicated, he returns to court and wins greater acclaim and power than before. A crusader and the only knight ever to unhorse the legendary Richard Coeur de Lion, William’s courage and steadfastness are rewarded by the hand in marriage of Anglo-Irish heiress Isobel de Clare, 19 years old, the grandaughter of kings and his equal in every way.”

Danielle wrote very warmly about this one and I love the period, so when a shiny new copy appeared I just had to pick it up.

Mr Golightly’s Holiday by Salley Vickers

“Many years ago Mr Golightly wrote a work of dramatic fiction which grew to be an international best-seller. But his reputation is on the decline and he finds himself out of touch with the modern world. He decides to take a holiday and comes to the ancient village of Great Calne, hoping to use the opportunity to bring his great work up to date. But he soon finds that events take over his plans and that the themes he has written on are being strangely replicated in the lives of the villagers he is staying among. He meets Ellen Thomas, a reclusive artist, young Johnny Spence, an absconding school boy, and the tough-minded Paula who works at the local pub. As he comes to know his neighbours better, Mr Golightly begins to examine his attitude to love, and to ponder the terrible catastrophe of his son’s death. And as the drama unfolds we begin to learn the true and extraordinary identity of Mr Golightly and the nature of the secret sorrow which haunts him links him to his new friends.”

I’ve always meant to read Salley Vickers but she’s never quite made it to the top of my list of priorities. This caught my eye when I was looking for something else. The book I was looking for wasn’t there, so I picked this one up, really liked the look of it and brought it home.

Ruby’s Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni

“This is the tale of three women – one witch, one mermaid and one missing – and how Ruby was caught up in between. When Isa Fly appears in the doorway of Captin Len’s Fried Fish Shop, thirteen-year-old Ruby is entranced. Isa comes from the coast where the air is fresh; unlike Ruby’s home in Cradle Cross, its factory furnaces pumping and filthy slits of canal water sending up a stink. Isa is on the hunt for a missing person, and Ruby is eager to help, convinced she will be repaid with an adventure at sea. But some of the townsfolk are instantly suspicious of the outsider with her shock of white hair and glinting mirrored skirts. They have their own lost relatives to mourn, and don’t take kindly to Isa’s ability to leave their Ruby spellbound. Undaunted, Ruby introduces Isa to Truda Blick, the bluestocking graduate who has just inherited the town’s button factory, where carcasses are rendered down and bones turned into buttons. Blickses is on the verge of collapse, and Truda has her work cut out. Ruby is desperate to help Truda and Isa but her alliance with the women is pushing the town to the brink of riot. All the trouble began, it seems, when Isa Fly arrived in Cradle Cross…Only Ruby knows enough to save them all. But first she must save herself.

I knew as soon as I saw this that it was going to be my sort of book, and so in went the order. And this week it arrived!

Have you read any of these? What did you think? Which book should I go for next? And which are you curious to know more about?

And what did you find in the library this week?