We can be an army of two

Dear Isabel,

Patience and Sarah (originally self-published in 1969 as A Place For Us) reads like going on a journey outside the closet while remaining firmly locked inside.

Set in a rural community in early 19th century New England, the story follows two neighbouring women who fall in love and struggle to find a room of their own. Patience White is a spinster in her late twenties who lives with her brother Edward and his wife Martha, and has no interest in being tied by marriage to a man. She wants to cultivate her mind and, above all, she wants to become a painter. Sarah Dowling, on the other hand, is a farmer and has been raised as a boy by her father, who, having been endowed with a house full of daughters, chose her to be his helper and to do (what was then seen as) a man’s job.

One day, Patience and Sarah meet, and they fall in love. They immediately start to make plans to travel and buy a piece of land in the wilds of upper New York State, where they hope to start a farm and set up a home together. However, when their families find out that their relationship is something more than the friendship they had initially taken it to be, difficulty ensues. Every day, Sarah tries to visit Patience, and every day her father beats her for it. Patience, on the other hand, plagued by fears over her reputation, and dreading to be made an outcast and a destitute, capitulates to her brother’s initial reaction to her relationship with Sarah, and denies her feelings for her.

Heartbroken, Sarah decides to leave alone, dressed as a boy. She cuts off her hair and takes to the road, disguised as Sam. She eventually meets an itinerant book-seller who falls in love with Sam (and falls immediately out of love, when he finds out that she is a girl). They become friends, and he teaches her to read.

Meanwhile, Patience is on an intense inner journey to find courage to escape her life as a spinster forever trapped in someone else’s home. After having spent the summer months on the road, Sarah comes back to her parent’s farm, and she immediately resume her relationship with Patience. Soon, they start to long for something more than snatched hours here and there, hidden from everyone. Patience and Sarah finally muster the courage to take up their initial plan, and go on a journey together to find a room of their own, a place for us. This time, while they are journeying together, Sarah must adopt the role of a lady.

The story is told in the first and second person, switching perspectives between Patience and Sarah. Each in their own way, they are determined to break free from the constraining roles available to them at the time. The fact that this is a 1960’s novel where lesbians don’t die in the end nor renounce their right to exist was the highlight of the book for me.

However, their relationship is still strongly framed within a heteronormative model where class differences seem to create a hierarchy in which Patience holds the authority to decide. Further, the novel also barely touches upon slavery, and we never get to see the displaced Native Americans whose land was stolen by settlers very much like Patience and Sarah.

Halfway through the story, it starts to degenerate into a rosy fairy tale where nothing has to change and everyone can be happy, so long as nothing is seen. This is a novel full of absences that resonate a little too loudly: a place for us that exists within a structure that remains largely unquestioned, and implies a them that is still kept carefully hidden in the closet.

Yours truly,

J.


George F. Henry, ‘À l’ombre des arbres’

“And I felt, I think for the first time, a rage against men. Not because they could say, “I’m going,” and go. Not because they could go to college and become lawyers or preachers while women could only be drudge or ornament but nothing between. Not because they could be parents at no cost to their bodies. But because when they love a woman they may be with her, and all society will protect their possession of her.” ― Isabel Miller, Patience & Sarah

*

“Who is this cautious unhoping young woman? Where is the hero who bore such batterings for love and stood up before witnesses to ask me to be a hero too? And I am a hero now. Can’t you see? We can be an army of two. We can be Plato’s perfect army: lovers, who will never behave dishonorably in each other’s sight, and invincible. Let the world either kill us or grow accustomed to us; here we stand.” ― Isabel Miller, Patience & Sarah


About the book

  • Arsenal Pulp Press, 2005, 225 p. Goodreads
  • Originally self-published in 1969 as A Place For Us. Published as Patience and Sarah in 1971
  • The novel won the Stonewall Book Award in 1971 (American Library Association Gay Book Award), and was listed on The Publishing Triangle’s list of 100 Best Lesbian and Gay Novels
  • The novel is based on a real-life painter named Mary Ann Willson who lived with her companion Miss Brundage in the early 19th century in Greene County, New York.
  • The books was adapted into a 1998 opera by Paula M. Kimper.
  • My rating: 3,5 stars
  • Projects: The Classics Club; Speak its name; Back to the Classics, hosted by Karen; 20 Books of Summerhosted by Cathy; The Classics Spin #24

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