Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Book Review: Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller

I picked up Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller on a whim last week, and to my delight, it was not the boring, circumspect novel I was expecting, but a fun and sexy romp across colonial norms, with two delightful and distinctive (if often frustrating and less than perfect) women. Set in a Puritanical farming community in early 19th century New England, it follows the romance and quest for a home of two women, the painter Patience White, and the farmer, Sarah Dowling. It is fairly unique in early lesbian fiction in its positive outlook and outcome, and the sheer joy and life that bubbles out of its pages, with the women ending up in a classic Boston Marriage.

Both women are somewhat unique and not entirely respectable, by their society's standards. They live near each other, but don't cross paths until Sarah comes to deliver some wood in the winter of 1816; Patience's scandalised sister in law takes one look at Sarah's trousers and won't let her in, so Patience, curiousity afire, does so instead and finds her heart and loins captured by this tall and graceful woman. Straightforward Sarah is equally enamoured of plump, redheaded Patience.

Patience is ambitious, educated, and intelligent. She has no interest in the 'normal' path of marriage and endless children, wishing mainly to paint, but is somewhat trapped in her comfortable but resented position in her brother's house. Her mind leaps ahead of Sarah's, and around; this both lends her to worry about what people might think and enables her to see the hopelessness of their current situation and push Sarah into a way out. She's well off - well off enough to paint! (though that was partly her father's indulgence of a favourite child) - but wholly dependent on her kin. It seems her schooling years freed her mind enough to dream of other things. Her lack of blind religious obedience was with her since childhood.

Sarah is the biggest of a brood of girls, picked out by her poor and practical father to be the 'boy' of the family. Simple, sweet natured, stubborn; she starts out as the classic naive 'farmboy'. She sees nothing wrong in loving Patience, until her candour brings a backlash on them, and causes Patience to pretend in public not to want her, leaving Sarah confused and uncertain. Poor Sarah; beautiful and bold, when Patience fails her she learns not to hope and depend on something that seemed so sure, and later Patience has to cajole and manipulate her into daring to dream of something more than snatched afternoons. They have a tragicomic conversation at one point, with Sarah convinced she takes too much and Patience trying to convey that she wants more.

The storyline doesn't really follow a predictable plot, instead being driven entirely by the growth of the characters; from first meeting, and headlong rush into plans of freedom and setting up a home together (something that was apparently fairly commonplace at that time), to outing and suspicion. Sarah defies her father repeatedly, being beaten each time, until Patience persuades her it is over. Sarah leaves anyway, alone, and spends an educational year (or nearly so) on the road as a boy, travelling rough for a while and then with a delightful and charming man mostly referred to as 'Parson', a writer and a preacher of sorts, who teaches 'Sam' his letters, opens his mind to the world and eventually indicates a ... more personal interest in him. Sadly, Sam actually being Sarah, that was never going to work.

After Sarah returns, she and Patience end up in each other's sights again pretty fast; both have grown a bit, Sarah more circumspect and cautious, and Patience ready to be bold and hold fast to her love. The two manage to find time to fall into bed together, which they do with delight, hunger and wonder, and Patience pushes her way into Sarah's life, befriending her family. Eventually she persuades Sarah to try again for their dream home, helped along by her sister-in-law and brother discovering them, and they set out along the river, through New York City (stopping to visit the Parson and his family) and then, after Sarah struggles painfully with a mild deceit, they find a place to settle. The story leaves them peacefully set up in their new life, bed made, first cake baked, paintings planned and crops growing, and the home christened with love and passion.

The story is not unreasonably short, but it is an easy read, for the most part. The only main oddity of style is that the entire book is written in the first and second person, alternating between Sarah and Patience, each talking to the other (as if she was filling in that time for her lover). Generally it didn't interfere with the story, and often fitted it very well, but occasionally it was annoying. The writing itself was generally simple and easy to read, but there were some delightful turns of phrases and incredibly quotable quotes, mostly relating to their attractions and realisations regarding each other.

Often each chapter lasted a significant period of time, and followed only the speaker. I say speaker, and not narrator, because it was written in the style of them speaking, and the two did sound different. Patience was more pretentious, or educated, and spoke more to Sarah, and Sarah had a more folksy rhythm and was more likely to speak for herself, rather than to Patience. The very slight dating in their speech is easily read as (and may well only be) a 'realistic' touch.

The intense focus on each character was sometimes an impediment to the story, other times cut out unnecessary distractions; Sarah's journey on the road included much more summary and background than the rest of the book and didn't suffer for it, and we had to get to know much of the context through the characters, rather than being given it directly. While this probably helped the flow of it, it also left me wondering about where they lived, what the source of Patience's brother's income was; details like that.

The sex was frequent, though it was vaguely described enough that it wasn't possible to tell when they progressed from kissing, to petting, to ... well, more. I'm not sure that they made much distinction themselves, given that it was all new and unnamed to them.  But despite the lack of explicitness, it was generally erotic and left both reader and those who discovered them in no doubt as to what they were feeling.

This is one of those books that lends itself to a delightful amount of analysis, but it is confounded by the fact that, though it is a classic and written some time ago, it is firmly in the historical genre, using the definition of 'writing about something in the past'. Specifically, that it was written about a time over half a century before the author's time. So while it feels like an authentic story, much of the analysis is based on hoping the author got it right, or figuring out which bits where based on her experiences and mindset.

Common to other books of this time period, the women didn't label themselves and the word 'lesbian' never arises. They simply fell in love with each other, quite matter-of-factly. Generally, the problem was not that they were both women (although this did cause problems) but that they weren't 'attaching themselves to a man' and conforming to the expected path of society; not getting married to a man was in a way worse than 'marrying a woman'. Patience's brother is in some way more disturbed by their most un-Puritanical passion, something that should typically be 'channeled and eliminated' (to misquote) through marriage. And his wife is more upset that Patience isn't 'keeping it in the family', though whether this was common practice or simply her own suppressed desire isn't fully clear.

Patience and Sarah in many ways set the stage for, or follow the established path of, the 'classic' butch-femme relationship, with Patience being very much the lady, and Sarah generally acting the man. But as they get to know each other better, the roles get more confused, though Patience always prefers dresses and Sarah always dislikes them. There are plenty of feminist moments, as they despair or otherwise discuss how dependent and constrained women are in the world of men, and Patience wonders once if it is loving (or owning) a woman that makes a man the 'lord', in which case, might they not make lords of each other?

The edition I picked up  (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2005) came wrapped in history and literary discussion, about the greatness and landmark-ness of the book, which was interesting to read. The foreword by Emma Donoghue was interesting, but had me wanting to read the story for myself less than halfway through, meaning I rushed through the remainder. Some of her analysis of the text had me waiting for those moments, and when they came, they weren't always as dramatic as she made them sound, though other times it caused me to pause and reread the quote and gain thereby. The last part of the book contained a great deal of background, from various people; about the author and how she started writing the book, the original research, the publication history. It's interesting reading and worth looking through if you're curious about the creation and origins of Patience & Sarah, or in lesbian publishing and historical fiction in general.

Technically the first lesbian historical novel, it is credited with inspiring and proving the foundation for, the genre today. While it is based on a real couple, Mary Ann Willson and Miss Brundidge, little is actually known about them (only that one was a painter, the other a farmer, where they lived, and that they were 'romantically attached', and a few other minor facts). The author spent some time researching, after stumbling on one of Patience's paintings with her partner, found little, and wrote a fiction novel instead, changing the names and inventing most everything else. The title was originally 'A Place for Us' but was changed when it was picked up by a publisher (McGraw-Hill).

It had a rocky start, self published (under a pseudonym, her actual name was Alma Routsong) in the unlightened era of terrible lesbian fiction in 1969, and the author had to sell it herself on street corners, but it did increasingly well after that, becoming the first winner of the Stonewall Gay & Lesbian Book Award in 1971.

It has been reprinted and republished a number of times since, and is currently available on Amazon as both Kindle and paperback editions.

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