Across the Page: The Classics

 
 

The real change occurs when 16-year-old Jeanette
meets and falls in love with another girl, Melanie. She has already begun
questioning her religious teachings by this time, and that doubt only increases
when a priest publicly humiliates and denounces the girls’ relationship. A
failed exorcism doesn’t help, and eventually Jeanette learns that she can only
rely on herself.

Organized into eight sections with biblical titles
— Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges and Ruth —
the book follows Jeanette as she takes the same fervor and passion she once
reserved for the Bible and applies it to her own heart.

Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller (Little Sister’s Classics/Arsenal
Pulp)

As Emma Donoghue points out in her introduction to Isabel Miller’s classic story of two
pioneering women, Patience & Sarah
"is an adventure story." The adventure here, however, is about "the
complex dynamics of the early nineteenth-century rural family, and finding
breathing room for that original creation, the female couple."

Miller, whose real name was
Alma Routsong, was inspired to write Patience
& Sarah
after visiting a folk art museum and learning about real-life
pioneering lesbian couple Mary Anne Willson, a painter, and her companion, Miss
Brundidge. An unsuccessful attempt to research the women’s lives led her to
create her own fictional characters, Patience and Sarah, who leave their
families in puritanical New England to start a home together in upstate New York.

Donoghue also points out
that Miller, who wrote Patience &
Sarah
in the 1960s, took a chance by incorporating a butch-femme dynamic in
the relationship. At the time, many lesbian feminists rejected the image as
imitating heterosexuality. Instead, Donoghue explains, Miller created a "profoundly
feminist work that questions but also celebrates and eroticizes difference in
gender roles."

Indeed, though Patience
is intrigued and attracted to Sarah’s androgynous qualities, she makes it clear
that she is not looking for a man: "Time enough later to teach her that it’s
better to be a real woman than an imitation man, and that when someone chooses
a woman to go away with it’s because a woman is what’s preferred."

Sarah’s first journey
away from home is taken alone. Dressed as a boy, she goes by the name Sam and
travels with a Parson all over the Northeast. The experience is humbling and she
returns fundamentally changed, no longer believing she can function in the
world as a man and doubting her ability to take care of Patience.

But Patience manages to restore
Sarah’s confidence, and the two set off once again. Much of the book is not
about the couple settling into their new home, but rather what it takes to get
them to leave their families, establish faith in each other, and explore the
world beyond their small Connecticut
town.

The one thing the women
do not find is a mirror for their connection. Because of the time period they
live in, they do not analyze their attraction in terms of identity or attempt
to place a label on their love. They know that it is forbidden in the Bible and
that society would not approve, but despite all of this they have a profound
amount of respect for their relationship.

Like Jane Rule, who had a
difficult time finding a publisher for Desert
of the Heart
, Miller struggled to get her novel out to readers. In 1969 she
self-published the novel and distributed copies on the streets of New York City. Her
promotion paid off, and the American Library Association gave the book its
first Gay Book Award. It was later published by McGraw-Hill.

The Little Sister’s
Classic edition from Arsenal Pulp Press features a brilliant introduction by
Emma Donoghue, plus an interesting essay by Miller’s partner, Elisabeth Deran,
about the book’s inception.

 

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