Letter writing was central to Sophie Barat's exercise of leadership. It was the phone, the fax and the email of her time, essential for maintaining relationships and good governance. As a little girl in Joigny Sophie was taught to read and write by her brother Louis, and his teaching included the art of writing a letter. Sophie began to exercise the skill of letter writing from the time she left home to live first in Paris and then later in Amiens.

The first in the major collection of Sophie Barat's letters is dated Paris, 10 October 1800, and it is to her elder, married sister, Marie-Louise Dusaussoy.

Sophie was 23 at the time. Her handwriting imitates that of Louis, her style is rather stilted and somewhat forced, and her tone rather bossy! But here is a young woman learning her craft. It is fascinating to watch Sophie's gradual possession of her own personal style, her own handwriting and her own way of shaping her letters. The style becomes the woman, and unmistakeably so.

It is important to know that the several volumes of Sophie Barat's letters, printed in the early years of the last century, were severely edited. Most references in Sophie Barat's letters which speak about her family, her feelings and finances, were omitted.

Apparently, such matters were not considered sufficiently saintly in content.This manner of editing manuscripts and documents was common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in the field of religious biography.

So to read the entire, unabridged letters of Sophie Barat is to be brought into her world in an immediate, lively way. Through her letters it is possible to track Sophie's life journey, day by day. Sophie had no idea her letters would be read by anyone other than the recipients. Because of this, she writes in an open, unguarded manner. In a way, our reading of her letters is a terrible invasion of her privacy. There is a feeling of intrusion, of listening to conversations which belong to others. Which of our lives can stand this scrutiny, revealing our moments of greatness and weakness, as we make our way in life? Yet, because Sophie Barat held a public role for 63 years in the Society, all her works, including her letters, are in the public domain. This became even more inevitable when the process of canonisation began in 1879.This process rendered Sophie Barat vulnerable and exposed in ways she could never have imagined or indeed wanted. Canonisation was not on her agenda.

Sophie Barat's letters are a blend of many issues and reflect her concerns in the day-to-day construction of the Society of the Sacred Heart. Her style and mode of government, and of expression, developed over the years. Her letters track and reveal this personal, intimate journey, as well as the growth and development of the Society. They present the public and private profile of Sophie Barat.

In Sophie's time a woman's role and space was considered to be in the home, in the private world of family, children and household responsibilities. This constriction on women was strongly enforced by Napoleon. By initiating religious communities of women in the early 19th century in France, Sophie Barat moved from the private world of women into the public domain. As the leader of an expanding religious community, her task in life drew her into the public arena, into the world of church and state, in France and elsewhere, and this stepping outwards, created Sophie Barat the letter writer.

Sophie Barat's letters are pragmatic, purpose driven, task oriented, full of varying agendas, and it is clear that she found letter writing both enjoyable and effective in realising her goals.What does she write about?

What makes the letters so fascinating is that a single letter can contain many, and indeed sometimes all, of these points. Her letters are long. Sophie admitted that she found it hard to write a short letter. Her letters are full of scriptural and literary allusions, embedded in the text and assimilated from her childhood and early studies in Paris.This is unconscious and unaffected, but through them Sophie Barat makes her points, again and again.

Sophie Barat's letters to church and state authorities are formal, business letters, and of necessity reveal little of the personality behind them. Such letters form about one eighth of the total collection of letters (14,000).

Most of Sophie's letters are to her friends, to her family, to local leaders of communities, members of the Society and to the wide-ranging number of acquaintances she had in her long life. Her letters are forms of conversations, talking points, asking for consideration, response, re-working and then action. In most of them, Sophie is quite direct, and she is certainly frank to a point of dismay at times! On reading these letters the first Devils' Advocate for the canonisation process, queried 'Why should a woman, who writes like this, be canonised?' A further comment, two Devils' Advocate later, noted 'Well, so what? Why should she not be canonised?' Indeed.

Further Reading

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

Examples of typical letters: Pages: 30-31; 35; 54; 71; 80; 92-93; 97; 102; 119-121; 131-132; 141; 162; 224-225; 266; 329-331; 340-343; 356-357; 369; 431.

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