Sunday, August 9, 2009
Patience and Sarah, by Isabel Miller
Patience and Sarah is the story of two women in New England, around 1816, who fall in love. One is a semi-independent woman, a watercolor painter from a well-to-do family, and the other is a farm-girl raised to be 'the boy' in a family where no boys had been born. Given this synopsis, you'd think "Ah... this is going to be a very sad book." Right?
Well, it isn't. Strangely enough, the book seems to be... kind of... actually pretty gentle on the main characters. The brother of the richer girl has to take a few days to think about it before he decides the two are sinning, and when he does decide it, he's very fair and polite about giving his sister enough to live on, and letting her go off and found her house with her girlfriend, for example. As I started the book, this seemed strange to me. And, if it was written today, the book would be pretty weak, honestly.
What was interesting in this book, however, was that it was written in 1969, when it was just barely accepted by many people that there even WAS such a thing as homosexuality. Except for a few sideways attempts (Orlando, for instance), and one or two very rough pioneering novels (The WEll of Loneliness), Ms Miller had almost no tradition to write from. Noone had written a romance between two women (discounting the semi-porn shocker pulps of the period, which were probably not terribly realistic), noone had really researched homosexuality in the past, noone had ever really talked about it. It was just so early, someone had to write somehting, just so people could start figuring out what it felt like to write about being in love.
As a result, the novel feels imperfect (very), but also very close to the bone of the author. Everything in it feels like her experience, or what she hoped for. It felt like a story about someone in the 60's, the earliest days of 'coming out', starting a relationship, only dressed up in period clothes from the early 19th century. Which was... I'm trying to find a word. Endearing sounds condescending. More like it induced an empathy with the author, rather than the character. You want to congratulate her for writing a book, without resorting to some sort of odd psycho-sexual acrobatics, without writing about how horrible the world is, without writing about how weird the main characters are. The whole novel felt like someone trying to write, say, Brokeback Mountain if they've only read L.M. Montgomery. Which was of course, kind of not so realistic feeling at times, but which always felt very sincere.
PS - The book is loosely based on two real women: Mary Ann Wilson, a watercolor artist, and a Miss Brundage, who shared a farm in New York for many years before Miss Brundage died. The image at the top is one of Wilson's paintings - she is one of the earliest American watercolor artists, and painted in a very unique way. More of her work, and a short bio, available here.