Patience & Sarah, Isabel Miller

Journal: 060

Audiobook Review of Patience and Sarah

Don’t you hate it when you’re driving along, or mucking out the stables, or cleaning house, working on autopilot, mapping out a post with perfect opening lines that say just what you want to say, and when you sit down at your desk, or your laptop on the steering wheel, there’s nothing there. It’s all gone.

I read years ago that you should never write a book in your head, all that creation is wasted, and it might be the best you ever wrote. I thought maybe, get my fingers moving on the keyboard, knock out a few lines, it’ll come back, but of course it hasn’t.

A couple of audiobooks ago I listened to Patience & Sarah (1969) by Isabel Miller, historical fiction, romance, thoroughly enjoyable.

In my occasional research into the archetypal Independent Woman I sometimes run into lesbian stories, or possibly lesbian stories, women who eschew marriage not for independent lives but to live with another woman, say Catherine Helen Spence with Jeanne Young or Mary Fullerton and Mabel Singleton, there’s quite a few. And what we know about them, their lives together, other than that they were ‘companions’ is very little. Sylvia Martin writes that she doubts they had the language to even imagine a sexual relationship.

I suspect that she is right, and that the loving, sexual partnership of Patience and Sarah owes a lot more to the 1960s when it was written than to the early C19th when it is set. I suspect. But just as I am an advocate for revising the way we look at early Australian writing to emphasise positive role models for young women, so I am happy in this case for women in the great blossoming of second wave feminism and sexual liberation to look again at earlier women’s relationships.

The outline of the story, loosely based on the life of painter Mary Ann Wilson who lived with her companion, Miss Brundage, on a “farmerette” in Greene County NY., is that Patience, well-off, educated, a talented amateur painter and Sarah poor, illiterate, dressed as and working as a boy for her father in place of the brothers she doesn’t have; in rural Connecticut; meet, fall in love, and form the intention of taking up farm land together in upstate New York, only recently opened up.

Two things strike me and they are the similar (true) story of Anne Drysdale and Caroline Newcomb in 1840s Victoria (here); and that Australia and the US were opened up within very similar timeframes. Of course settlement of New England and the Southern states down the east coast began a couple of hundred years earlier, but the movements inland, in both the US and Australia seem to have begun at around the same time in the early 1800s.

The romance, its ups and downs, Sarah’s adventures as a boy travelling alone, and the eventual happy ending are all well done. There is not too much sex and, as I say, what there is seems to owe a lot to women’s growing awareness of and assertiveness about their bodies in the 1960s, but that can be excused, and the general descriptions of farm and town life – to someone who couldn’t for the life of him place Connecticut on a map – seem realistic.

The story of the book is interesting too. It was originally self-published as A Place for Us, and was sold by the author, real name Alma Routsong, “on street corners in New York” before finding a real publisher in 1971. I think it must have gained a following in lesbian circles, it was subsequently made into an opera and a screenplay, and this audiobook version was produced by Janis Ian (for a company with an odd name which is not reproduced on the back cover and which of course I did not write down while I was listening). Janis Ian and Jean Smart do an excellent job reading the alternating voices of the gently spoken Patience and the rougher Sarah.

After this I listened to some bog standard crime fiction – I’ll list my reads another day – and then I started on Gone With the Wind which I have not previously read. Scarlett O’Hara must be the least attractive heroine, spoilt and childish, that I have ever had to endure. Sadly (or maybe luckily) about the time the widowed Scarlett is taking up with Rhett while living with her sister-in-law and Aunt Pittipat in Atlanta, the uneven surface of the mp3 CD gave up the ghost and I was able to get no further.

I forget what I’m listening to now, except that it has 15 CDs. I often need to hear a few lines to bring the story back to mind. When I get back in the truck I’ll write down the details (The Unquiet read by Jeff Harding) and you can tell me what you think of the resonant voice of the actor, whom I have heard quite often before.

This weekend I’m in Melbourne. After a hectic Friday in which I unloaded 2 trailers in Wodonga, reloaded them in Melbourne 300 km south, ran one 250 km up to Charlton where I’d left the third trailer, took that trailer back to Melbourne and then 140 km out the other side to unload Saturday morning, When I got back I booked into the Burvale Hotel which has plenty of parking for trucks and spent a pleasant 24 hours with mum, who lives nearby, and brother B2 who had dibs on her guest bed.

Now I’m back out in the western suburbs where I’ll finish loading tomorrow and be on my way. For my last trip of the year I think. The WA premier is reneging on his undertaking to open the state border to Victorians when they reached 28 days clear of Covid, which they did 2 days ago, and so I will have to waste 14 days isolating before Christmas which I might have used to do another trip.

I’d better spend those 14 days preparing for AWW Gen 3 Week 17-23 Jan, 2021 as I’ll probably have resumed work by then to make up for lost time.

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Isabel Miller, Patience & Sarah, first pub. 1969. Audiobook: Brilliance, 2014. 5 hours 47 min.