First published in 1969 under the title A Place for Us, Patience & Sarah is a lovely classic lesbian novel by Isabel Miller. Like Nancy Garden’s Annie on my Mind, this book is one of the first and few books of the time to have lesbian female protagonists in love, and to have a happy ending. It is still popular today and one of the most beloved LGBT novels.
Taking place in Connecticut in 1816, the story follows the viewpoints of Patience White and Sarah Dowling. Patience is in her late twenties, which at that time labeled her as a spinster. She lives with her brother Edward, his wife Martha, and her little nieces and nephews. She not only helps Martha care for the children, Patience is a wonderful painter, which she would love to do for a living. Sarah Dowling is the second-oldest in a house full of sisters. Being strongest, her father picks her to help him do the “men’s” work. A hard worker and itching to buy her own land, Sarah one day goes to the White’s home to deliver wood, and she meets Patience. The two feel an instant connection as they share a meal together and look at Patience’s pictures. It’s love at first sight, and when Sarah reveals her plans to go to Genesee, New York, and start a farm, Patience asks to come too.
After sharing their first kiss, the two women are happily in love. However, their families find out about their love, and react badly. Initially worried about her reputation, Patience refuses to go with Sarah, and Sarah sets off, heartbroken and alone. En route to Genesee and disguised as a boy, she meets Parson Peel, a knowledgeable man in books and learning. After learning to read, Sarah returns to her community and reconciles with Patience. Finally accepting her feelings for Sarah, Patience travels with her lover to hopefully find a good life together.
Patience & Sarah is a simple read, but Isabel Miller conveys so much in her story: from what the characters are thinking and feeling to brief but beautifully written details of the scenery and other observations. The characters of Patience and Sarah balance each other out well, though there are personality clashes between them sometimes. At first, the idea of them deciding to move to New York together after only a second meeting seemed too quick and impulsive to me, but as the women’s story moved along, I was nonetheless still rooting for them.
The novel had a good cast of characters with their own personalities. Some of the more sympathetic and likeable ones were Sarah’s sister Rachel, and Parson Peel. The Parson especially was entertaining, with his acceptance of differences and his endless supply of facts from the books he read. He taught Sarah more than just letters; he showed her possibilities she hadn’t known existed.
The love story between the two women blooms as they travel and build their own farm. They endure some trials as well as their own worries and doubts, but both Patience and Sarah really are in love, and believe that as long as they have each other, they can get through anything. Their unyielding bond is admirable.
Isabel Miller based Patience & Sarah on two real historical women. Painter Mary Ann Willson and her companion Miss Brundidge settled together in Greene County, New York around 1820. Miller even dedicated her book to them, which I found very touching.
All in all, Patience & Sarah is a wonderful historical lesbian romance that warms the heart. Anyone who is interested in LGBT literature be they gay or straight, should take the time to read this amazing novel.