I just finished re-reading Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller. I originally read it in 1985 and hadn’t read it again since then, somehow misplacing my paperback copy in the intervening years. I was very excited when I noticed recently that an ebook edition is now available, so downloaded it for my Kindle.
I enjoyed Patience & Sarah a lot more this time around. As an early 20s baby dyke desperately looking for lesbian reading material in the mid-1980s I read it because it was always mentioned as one of the books every lesbian should read. I liked it well enough, but it didn’t really grab me. I seem to recall thinking it was a bit dull at the time. I preferred lesbian books (and books in general, actually) with less literary quality. (I’ve always been a pretty low-brow reader for the most part.) But the mellowing of age has allowed me to truly appreciate things now that didn’t wow me when young.
The book was written in the mid-1960s, pre-Stonewall, and Miller (pen name for Alma Routsong) could not find a publisher for it. So in 1969 she and her partner published it, paying to print 1025 copies, all of which they sold themselves. McGraw-Hill (one of the publishers that had originally rejected it in 1967) picked it up in 1972. Times had changed enough in just a few short years to take a chance on it. I believe it has been in print ever since.
Patience & Sarah is a lesbian classic about two women in New England in the early 1800s who, after the requisite troubles, leave their families to buy their own farm and make a life together. The story was inspired by Routsong’s discovery in a museum of Mary Ann Willson and Miss Brundidge. Willson was a primitive painter and the information in the museum stated she lived on a farm with Brundidge, to whom she had a “romantic attachment.” Nothing much is known about these women, though Routsong desperately tried to research them.
At the time Patience & Sarah was written there had been less than a handful of novels published that contained positive portrayals of lesbians and that included happy endings. Most “lesbian fiction” of the time was published as pulp novels, in which the lesbians usually killed themselves, went crazy, ended up with a man, or in some other way were alone and unhappy. Two notable exceptions are The Price of Salt, written by Patricia Highsmith under the pen name Claire Morgan and published in hardcover in 1952, and Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule, published in hardcover in 1964.
What I really appreciated most in reading Patience & Sarah this time was Routsong’s writing style. It’s simple and unadorned, yet she crafts it into prose that is both beautiful and moving. Part way through the book I realized she also did some very interesting (and unusual) things with POV. Some chapters are written in first person, some in third person, and one particular chapter is actually written in second person present tense.
This edition of Patience & Sarah includes some really neat extras. At the beginning is an introduction by Emma Donoghue. At the end are a couple pieces written by people who knew Routsong, including her partner at the time she wrote the novel. There are also images of things like the invoice for the self-published printing run, and the first cover for the book, which originally carried the title A Place for Us.
Even though I didn’t appreciate the book nearly as much as a baby dyke I was always glad I had read it because Patience & Sarah is a significant part of lesbian literary history. I understood that even at the time. I’m even more glad that I have read it again and can now appreciate not only the story, but the very fine writing. If you haven’t read it yet, put it on your TBR list.