Throughout her life Sophie Barat was an intrepid traveller. She used personal visits to the communities as a way of maintaining unity within the Society and these journeys were a source of great personal growth for Sophie herself.

This mode of governance began rather casually and haphazardly. Sophie's journeys arose initially out of pressing needs and demands, and in time evolved into a mode of government and leadership.

Until 1802 Sophie's experience of travel had been relatively little. As a child in Joigny, her excursions were to the river Yonne, or to the vineyards, and occasionally to relatives and friends in the countryside around Joigny. But this changed quickly and dramatically in 1795 when Sophie joined her brother Louis in Paris, in the wake of the Terror. She travelled then by barge, up the river Yonne, until it joined the river Seine and so entered Paris. What were Sophie's feelings when she saw the Cathedral of Notre Dame for the first time? This majestic view of Paris along the Seine would become familiar to her, for each autumn Sophie went home for the wine harvest and returned to Paris in the spring. However, once she had decided to join the Dilette di Gesù in 1800, Sophie's travels took her from Paris to Amiens and this journey marks a turning point in her life.

There are some contemporary travel journals written by members of the Society in the course of the lifetime of Sophie Barat. Sophie herself wrote the Journal of Poitiers, which is a detailed and fascinating account of several journeys she made from 1806-1808. While they tell a great deal about the foundation of the first noviceship at Poitiers, they also tell of Sophie's experiences of travelling from Grenoble, to Poitiers, to Bordeaux, Angoulême, Niort and Paris, in graphic detail. Sophie's journal is complemented by further accounts written by her travelling companions. The travel journals of Elizabeth Galitzine and Louise de Limminghe, in particular, are important since Sophie herself did not keep any further journals, except for a short time in 1841-1842.

Travelling in 19th century Europe was a busy, bustling affair. For some, it was travel for trade and business, or the search for work; for others, who had the time and money, it was a source of culture and education. The network of carriage routes, followed by the creation of the railways, opened out huge possibilities for mobility in France, and in Europe generally. Yet even for the wealthy, travelling was a rather daunting affair. The Grand Tour was considered a part of the education of the young man, and progressively of the young woman, too. And while they often travelled with quite an entourage, even so their accounts make our delays at airports or rail stations look like a picnic.

My own vintage

In this context, it is intriguing to read Sophie Barat's Journal of Poitiers, for instance, and learn of her travelling experiences. There is no doubt that Sophie enjoyed being on the road, and that it did her health good. For example, in 1802 she had been seriously ill in Amiens, and, despite a lot of care, she had not really recovered full health. Yet in a letter to Philippine Duchesne in 1804, when she was en route from Grenoble to Poitiers, Sophie tells Philippine that during that journey she felt she had truly regained her strength. It was a therapeutic experience. Being on the road and seeing new places and people, gave Sophie Barat a freedom and relaxation she had not encountered, either in Joigny, or Paris, or Amiens.

This did not mean that the actual travelling itself was easy. Sophie tells in her Journal how she and her companion had to deal with carriages breaking down, carts that shunted slowly along; inns that were less than adequate; beds that were dirty and/or damp; food that was doubtful, to say the least. At that level there was little romanticism in her travels. But over the years Sophie and her travelling companions became accomplished travellers. When we see Sophie and Marie Patte in Rome in 1845, plotting their trip to Turin with Giorgio, the carriage driver, we can sense they know exactly how to go; and that Giorgio recognised and respected the experience of these French ladies.

For years Sophie Barat travelled the length and breadth of France. She was familiar with the routes to Italy, to Belgium and to Switzerland. Her journeys to Rome were made sometimes by land and sometimes by sea from Genoa to the port of Rome. As the years went by Sophie got to know the best routes for her needs, the best places to stay for bed and breakfast. In time there were either enough community houses where she could spend overnights, or friends who were happy to accommodate Sophie when she was travelling. As the Society grew, Sophie spent weeks, even months, in a house visiting the community and the schools, creating or renewing structures, and, by her presence, maintaining connections with the wider body of the Society.

Philippine Duchesne wrote long accounts of her journeys to Louisiana, and her letters, written en route from Bordeaux to New Orleans, are lively and full of vibrant images. Certainly, Sophie Barat did not have the dramatic adventures of Philippine, nor of Anna du Rousier in Latin America, or of the members of the Society who travelled in the depths of winter into Canada, or in the heat of Algeria. Sophie certainly planned to visit Philippine and the communities in Louisiana, but this hope never materialised. Sophie did go to England in 1844, despite dire warnings that she would find the English Channel daunting. However, Sophie noted with satisfaction that she had a wonderful trip, and that everyone else on board ship was seasick. When the railways commenced in France, in the mid-19th century, Sophie enjoyed this rapid form of transport. But, since she effectively ceased making long journeys from c.1855, Sophie did not experience rail travel extensively. So, whether by carriage, by boat or by train, Sophie Barat was indeed an intrepid traveller. She remarked once to her friend, Eugénie de Gramont, headmistress of the school in Paris, that she felt she had become truly cosmopolitan through her travels.

It was a telling remark and a key to understanding the relationship between Sophie Barat and Eugénie de Gramont. Sophie Barat was a woman continually in transit and in contact with a wide circle of communities, friends and acquaintances. Eugénie de Gramont, by contrast, never left Paris, except to visit her family. She was always within a close, tightly knit circle of family, of the community in the rue de Varenne (the Hôtel Biron) situated in the fashionable Faubourg St Germain in Paris.

There is a further pattern here. During the troublesome years in Amiens (1806-1815) Sophie Barat tended as far as possible to be absent, to be on the road. The divisions within the house were stark and the tensions high. Eugénie de Gramont was at the centre of this polarisation between some members of the community and Sophie Barat. Later on, especially when the archbishop of Paris lived in the Hôtel Biron, divisions grew within the community, and, once again, Eugénie de Gramont was at the centre of a similar pattern of polarisation around the leadership of Sophie Barat.

We need to study Sophie Barat's travels, and see them in the context of her relationships and of her leadership of the Society. In some respects she had to leave both Amiens and later Paris, if only to discover how to return. This does not mean that she simply avoided confrontation. Clearly she did not. Yet she admitted frankly to Eugénie de Gramont that there were times when she returned to Paris reluctantly. She compared her feelings to that of a child who does not wish to return to school, and makes as many detours as possible until the school door has to be faced, finally. Sophie Barat's travels served her well. They gave her the distance, energy and insight to deal with what appeared to be intractable problems in the Society. Travel changed her, shaped and formed her, matured and enlarged her. It kept her soul and spirit mobile. It ensured that she had time to reach inner space and perspective, time to renew health and energies, all enabling her to fulfil her task in life.

Sophie Barat: the intrepid traveler


Further Reading

From: Madeleine Sophie Barat A Life (Cork University Press)

Examples of journeys: pp 20-25; 42-44; 49-54; 75-80; 130-132; 199-207; 212-219; 220-222; 247-248; 253-259; 275-281; 332-333; 355; 391-396; 408-414

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