“Patience and Sarah,” the story of women in love — with each other — in America early last century, is a novel with a past. Unable to find a publisher for the book when it was completed in 1968, the author published it herself as “A Place for Us” in a “Bleecker Street Press” edition and sold 1000 copies out of a shopping bag. Last year the American Library Association honored it with the First Annual Gay Book of the Year Award. I understand that it has been an underground classic in the Women’s Movement and that many young gay women cherish and find support in it. Its surfacing in bookstores now is welcome because the book was doubtless intended to move and delight a more general audience as well — and I am sure it will.
The novel was inspired by a few facts about the life of Mary Ann Willson, an American primitive painter of the early 1800s, who settled with a “devoted female companion” in Greene County, New York. Miss Miller writes in her afterword: “We know about their ‘romantic attachment’ to each other, their quiet peaceful life, the respect and help of their neighbors, and their dooryard full of flowers, their plowing and haying, their cow, the improvised paints — berries and brick dust — the paintings sold for 25 cents to neighbors who carried them all over eastern North America, from Canada to Mobile. We are provoked to tender dreams by a hint. Any stone frorm their hill is a crystal ball.”
Although we learn little of Patience’s paintings, the idea of them infects and unifies this remarkably original book. The writing has the directness and whimsicality of primitive paintings — it is like spiked gingerbread or surprising samplers. The tone is sweetly bold. And the tale evokes many kinds of frontier at once. Although the women live in a churchly community in Connecticut where they feel restrictions, it also feels like the frontier. And their dream is to go west to York State and the wild, authentic frontier. It is refreshing and wonderfully suggestive for a new women’s love literature to be announced from the pole of civilized history opposite decadence. And it is a witty pleasure to read a frontier tale where the explorers, the pathfinders, the hunters, the new builders are there, but metaphorically — as gay women!
As in other frontier stories, everything between these pioneer lovers is improvised and fluid. Experience is sometimes so new it precedes language — in loving, their bodies tell them what to do and they invent names for their sensations. And social custom is so young that public censure is fumbling. Patience decides their first kisses will not show: “Her face showed glory so bright I might have worried except that I was sure no one else had any basis in experience for recognizing it.” Though Patience’s father beats her painfully when he knows, her mother and many sisters are moved by their love. Martha — caught in a marriage of murder by pregnancy to Patience’s brother Edward — discovers the unlaced lovers, wonders and envies a sweetness and eros she never knew. And their heat sometimes makes even righteous Edward glow.
All this makes me muse on Leslie Fiedler who, beginning with his essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey,” argued that men in the crucial 19th century American literature turned from heterosexuality toward each other to know their deepest selves. So here do women turn. But if those American writers were able to imagine only sexless idealized women, Isabel Miller retroactively gives them the lie and creates women so strong and juicy no men or marriage will answer.
The love between the two women here would be mythic were it not for the reality of the lovers. As in a myth, Sarah’s first kiss brings immediate recognition to Patience: “I knew why she’d been afraid and wondered why I hadn’t been, why I had lured this mighty mystery and astonishment into the room, into our lives. I turned my head to save my life.” Then she turns it back, thinking, “Whatever this was, I would live it.”
True, there are retreats. There are moments of confusion as love defines itself. There are alternating initiatives — they take turns getting lost in the present, leaving the burden of their future to the other. Sarah, 21, raised by her father as a boy, is all honest impulse; she first wants to rush with her love to the wilderness, then seeing something of the world’s complexity, would drug herself with a life of secret Sundays in Patience’s room. Patience, 27, is intuitive and in many ways artful; she first fails her love in boldness, refusing her flight, then insists on it, arranging it so her brother will finance it. Strategic retreats, but no doubt about the love, after that first moment no fear of its nature, no pain given or got in it, no enduring loss felt for the exile it causes, almost no cost. Not mythic, it is love in its pastoral phase. The reader doesn’t really want it different, because the book has authority on its own terms, as does the wrought love of the women.
Some of the best adventures in the book yield bemusing commentary on women. When Patience’s nerve fails her, Sarah tries to go west alone, cutting her hair and calling herself Sam. But when her lack of beard makes people stop her for a runaway apprentice, Sarah concludes, “I began to see how boys aren’t much better off than women. Men are the ones who get their way and run the world.”
She takes refuge in the wagon of an itinerant bookseller. A New York family man, a restless intellectual, the defrocked Parson Peel shares his dreams, his learning, his curiosity, his alphabet with Sarah. Believing her to be a boy, he eventually touches I her knee, assuring her that “men have loved and embraced each other since the beginning of time.” With her unmasking he drops his pursuit and “differences came creeping in, like Parson started helping with the book boxes, and he never said another cuss word in my hearing, and I think a little at a time he stopped educating me. I mean, he seemed to stop saying whatever came into his head. There’d be little waits, it seemed to me, while he thought out what it was fitting or useful for a woman to know.”
Patience had been educated and finished and knew the secret merits of these things. When Sarah was being beaten by her father for trying to see her lover, Patience thought, “It is a sin to raise a girl to be a man believing in strength and courage and candor. We can’t prevail that way.” When they are finally traveling together and a man accosts Sarah on a Hudson steamer because of her frank smile, Patience regretfully gives her lessons in being a lady. It’s not that Sarah hadn’t learned holds and throws when she was Sam on the road. But she can’t prevail that way and has to learn to gaze idly into space and not to hear men’s remarks. Patience sums up her method: “You are a very rich, very ill-tempered 50-year-old lady who has always had her own way in everything. You do as you please, and you walk like a lord, and you are deaf.”
It is the 19th century, after all, and ladies’ accomplishments were still more appropriate than karate. When she was born, Patience’s father, “wondering how someone with all that go could stand to be a woman,” said “he’d half hoped naming me Patience would help a little.” It did. One wonders what helped Isabel Miller and other writers like her stand the arcane, early American taboos of the publishing industry so long. Well now the territory is opened, and we can watch the settlers fill up the frontier.
An afterthought — two tests for the uncertain buyer. (1) If you like the cover, the primitivesque rendering of Sarah and Patience in formal marital embrace, you’ll like the book, because it fits. (2) Did you like Charles Portis’s “True Grit”? Some of the droll ingenuousness when Sarah speaks is like that. Better buy it — this is not so likely to be made into movie. For one thing, there’s no part for John Wayne. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 24, 2020