“Patience is passion tamed.”
- Lyman Abbott
Patience & Sarah is a classic piece of lesbian historical fiction, set in 1816. Written by Isabel Miller, it was published as A Place For Us in 1969 and re-published with its current title in 1971.
Patience & Sarah does not, as you would expect, refer to being patient with Sarah, but to the main two characters: Patience White and Sarah Dowling. Roughly half the novel is narrated by Patience, the other by Sarah.
Patience is a fairly wealthy woman who was saved from needing to marry for money by the money her father left her when she died. Sarah, on the other hand, came from a poor family, and was scandalous in her time because she wore men’s clothes and did men’s work. They create the butch/femme characters common in lesbian fiction.
(spoilers follow) They meet when Sarah delivers firewood to Patience’s home. Conversation ensues, and Sarah mentions her dreams of heading west and buying her own farm. Patience is quietly skeptical, but requests to come along. Sarah readily agrees.
The pair begins to plan their trip, and while doing so Sarah admits to her feelings for Patience. Patience confesses reciprocates them, while being acutely aware of the danger that poses.
Unfortunately, their fledgling relationship is quickly cut short when Sarah tells her sister about her and Patience. Her sister tells their father, who beats Sarah and drags her to Patience’s doorstep, where he demands to know if this is true. Patience denies it and tells the father it was just a game.
Sarah, no doubt disappointed, cuts off her hair and starts going by the name “Sam” and pretends to be a boy. She meets a man, Parson, who teaches her how to do many things typically only taught to males, including how to read.
Eventually “Sam” admits to Parson who she really is. After a year of being gone from Sarah’s home state in Connecticut, her and Parson part ways, Parson to New York (where he’s from) and Sarah returns home. When she does, Patience casually asks Sarah to dinner. Patience admits that she lost her courage, and they begin their relationship again.
All is well and beatings-free for a while, but eventually Patience’s sister’s disdain for their relationship comes to a head and the pair decide to head to New York (“consummating” their relationship on the way). They meet up with Parson again, and decide that upstate New York in Greene County is where they want to be. The couple buy a small piece of land, plant crops, and begin their lives together. (spoilers end here)
Patience & Sarah is based on a true story, the story of Mary Ann Wilson, a painter, who lived with her female companion, known only as Miss Brundage. These two lived together in New York state in the early 1800s.
This novels not only deals with attitudes towards homosexuality in the 1800s, but also attitudes towards women in general. It won the Stonewall Book Award for 1971, and also had an opera made after it, possibly the first opera ever featuring a lesbian love story. It’s a story of love and sacrifice, and most of all: courage. Patience & Sarah may be lesbian fiction, but it’s certainly not only for lesbians. Anyone interested in women’s issues and/or a fan of glbtq fiction should get something out of this well-known lesbian novel.