When Sophie arrived in Grenoble in the winter of 1804, one wonders how much she knew about the key role played by the family of Philippine Duchesne in the French Revolution. Both Philippine’s father and her uncle (Claude Perier) were heavily involved in attempts to force Louis XVI to convoke the Estates General (a political event referenced in Part 1 of the novel, “Barrels”). The adjoining homes of the Periers and the Duchesnes faced onto the Place Saint André, along with the Parliament building for the Dauphiné province.  Many historians consider the French Revolution to have started in Grenoble in June, 1788, when the disgruntled Dauphinois—furious that Louis had sent troops in to shut down an assembly of Parliament—threw roof tiles at the royal troops.  Philippine’s family included powerful bankers and lawyers who looked toward a constitutional monarchy that would give more power to the rising bourgeoisie. Her uncle Claude Perier offered his chateau in nearby Vizille for the forbidden assembly to take place; Monsieur Duchesne drafted the resultant list of grievances that was sent to the king.

The Place Saint André (often called the heart of Grenoble) offers us a far more convivial historical fact:  is the location of the second coffee house in all of France! Established in 1739, it is still open for business as the Café de la Table Ronde. It was also an artistic and intellectual center for the likes of Jean Jacques Rousseau and the 19th-century novelist Stendhal. Whether Sophie and Philippine ever enjoyed a cup of coffee here is unrecorded . . .

Where we know they did spend time together is Ste. Marie d’en Haut, the old Visitation convent that Philippine had attempted to resurrect in the wake of the Revolution.  She was largely unsuccessful, and Joseph Varin sent the young Sophie (then only 24) to her in hopes that they could open a second school there.  The two women were different in many ways, but their deep and joyous spirituality was a lifelong bond. Below we see (left) the steps Sophie would have ascended in order to enter Ste. Marie d’en Haut and the doorway through which she met the welcoming Philippine.


The novel (Part 4, “A Garden Enclosed”) recounts a moment in the convent gardens when Sophie, Philippine, and Thérèse Maillucheau are discussing the Song of Songs. Below left is the cloister garden as it appears today.  The view of Grenoble at the top of this page is the view from the perspective of the outer gardens (below right).


The chapter “Grilles” (Part 4) discusses Philippine’s unhappiness over Sophie’s decision to abandon the grilles that separated the religious choir from the chapel itself; Sophie’s vision was for her religious to be both “wholly contemplative and wholly apostolic”–prayerful, but not shut away from the world. These are the grilles and chapel ceiling as they appear today.


Today Ste. Marie d’en Haut is the Dauphinois Museum: There is a wonderful link to the history of the convent.




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