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Literature / Patience and Sarah

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Patience and Sarah (also written as Patience & Sarah) is a 1969 novel by Alma Routsong, published under the pen name Isabel Miller. It was originally self-published under the title A Place For Us, but after finding a publisher it was renamed Patience and Sarah in 1971.

Patience and Sarah tells the story of two Connecticut women in 1816 named Patience White and Sarah Dowling. They fall in love, leave their homes together to buy a farm, and live in a "Boston marriage".

Patience is a well-to-do young woman who lives with her brother, his wife, and their children after her father's death. Patience is a painter who enjoys painting Biblical scenes. One day, Patience has a conversation with the infamous Sarah Dowling, a local woman who is considered scandalous for her masculine fashion and behavior. Sarah tells Patience that one day she wants to move away and have her own farm. Patience doesn't believe that's possible but decides to fancy Sarah's imagination. Sarah later admits that she's attracted to Patience, and Patience admits the same. This will eventually lead into the two running off together.

Patience and Sarah is an influential novel when it comes to Queer Romance. It was written in the late 1960s and is one of the earliest lesbian-themed books to have a happy ending. In 1998, Patience and Sarah was adapted into an opera. It was also adapted into a screenplay titled Greener Pastures in 2008.

Patience and Sarah provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Sarah's parents are usually loving and laidback, however upon finding out that Sarah is in love with Patience, Sarah's father beats her up and then drags her to Patience's home to find out the nature of their relationship. For several day in a row, whenever Sarah tries visit Patience afterwards, her father would try to beat her into submitting to his will (though he doesn't consider them serious beatings because they "only" result in bruising). It doesn't work. Sarah doesn't look down upon her father for his behavior but it does tarnish their formerly pleasant bond.
  • Aloof Big Brother: Patience's brother Edward has always been a distant and strict brother, but she does believe he loves her.
  • Ambiguously Bi: It's implied that Patience's sister-in-law Martha has less-than-platonic feelings for her. She's scandalized by Patience's love for Sarah but there's also an undertone of jealousy to it. When she admonishes Patience's relationship for being ungodly and sinful, she puts emphasis on Patience being with someone "not even in the family!", as if she wishes she was in Sarah's place.
  • Ambiguous Situation; Rachel tells her sister Sarah that she didn't think their dad would react so badly to hearing about her feelings for Patience. Being sheltered, she thought it was an ordinary thing and wanted her father to confirm it. Not even Sarah is certain whether Rachel is telling the truth or whether she had wanted to see Sarah beaten as retribution for wanting to leave with Patience and not her (or, alternatively. she had just wanted their dad to stop Sarah from leaving).
  • Butch Lesbian: Sarah wears men's clothes and does "men's work" in the strict early 1800s. She has a strong disinterest in marrying a man, but falls in Love at First Sight with Patience.
  • Closet Key: Patience to Sarah. Her only romantic interaction prior to meeting Patience was when a traveling boy kissed her. She didn't like the kiss but it never clicked why she didn't until she fell for Patience.
  • Cure Your Gays: Subverted. Patience's brother Edward asks if she's tried to pray for her feelings to go away, but Patience notes she doesn't want to be "freed" of her feelings for Sarah. She's instead prayed to be "fulfilled in it".
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The story is set in 1810s Connecticut and it shows. The characters don't agree with it but slavery is depicted (though the main black character is explicitly a worker and not a slave), women are expected to be either timid home-makers or teachers if they "selfishly" refuse to marry, and Domestic Abuse is ignored.
  • Drowning Unwanted Pets: As a part of the Deliberate Values Dissonance, Sarah offhandedly mentions that her father has drowned kittens.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Patience and Sarah go through a lot but they eventually settle down on a farm together.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Daniel Peel is better known as "Parson Piel" or, as Sarah calls him, just "Parson".
  • Fire Is Red: Discussed and subverted. While painting, Patience notices that fire is not purely red. It's yellow, orange, blue, and a variety of other colors depending on its intensity. Martha refuses to acknowledge that fires aren't red.
  • Forced Out of the Closet: When Sarah tells her sister Rachel that Patience is her "mate", Rachel tells their parents. It was either done maliciously or accidentally depending on how you interpret it.
  • From the Mouths of Babes: Patience mentions that at age four she tried to teach her brother about how moving a certain way felt pleasurable. His shocked reaction taught her that some things shouldn't be discussed.
  • Gayngst: Subverted. Despite the 1816 setting, neither Patience or Sarah are ashamed of their attraction for one another. It's others' reactions to their relationship that worries them. Later in the book it's revealed that Patience doesn't even know that the Bible has verses that are often read as homophobic. Even after learning this, she still doesn't angst about herself.
  • Hates Wearing Dresses: Sarah's mother makes her wear one of her dresses one Sunday while visiting Patience. Sarah hates it and finds it cumbersome.
  • Homoerotic Dream: After meeting Sarah, Patience has a dream where her sister-in-law Martha is topless. In the dream, Patience places her mouth on Martha's bosom, which Martha encourages. It's implied that Patience has unknowingly been harboring feelings for Martha for several years.
  • Homophobic Hate Crime: Sarah's father beats her up for several days in a row in an attempt at stopping her from seeing Patience anymore. It doesn't work. Eventually, he decides to ignore their relationship and pretend that they're just friends.
  • Incest Subtext:
    • Sarah's sister, who she shares a bed with and sometimes kisses, is very jealous of Sarah's lover Patience, and it's implied that her feelings for Sarah are similar to Sarah's feelings for Patience.
    • Patience's sister-in-law Martha is less horrified to find Patience in bed with another woman and more horrified that the woman — who Patience was sleeping with — isn't a member of Patience's family.
  • Incompatible Orientation:
    • It's implied that Patience has been in love with her sister-in-law Martha since they met, however Martha is (probably) straight and fell for her brother instead.
    • Parson tries coming onto Sarah but she doesn't like men and is only interested in him platonically.
  • Lady Looks Like a Dude: Sarah looks like a boy at first glance and can pass for male when she cuts her hair short (albeit as a barely pubescent boy).
  • My Sister Is Off-Limits: Sarah's teenage sister Rachel has a relationship bordering on Big Sister Attraction. She hates Patience's close relationship with Sarah and hates sharing Sarah with Patience.
  • Raised as the Opposite Gender: Since age nine, Sarah's been raised as if she was a boy. Her dad only had daughters and wanted a surrogate son, so he decided to raise his tallest daughter like a son. Sarah even often refers to herself as a boy.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Subverted. Sarah tries to pretend to be a man. It only works to a degree. Everyone sees her soft, hairless face and high-pitched voice and assumes she's fourteen at oldest. This leads to multiple people trying to get her arrested because they think she's a runaway apprentice.
  • Relative Error: When Sarah mentions a "Rachel" wanting to go to York state with her, Patience gets defensive and questions her on who this is. Rachel is Sarah's younger sister.
  • Sibling Triangle: It's suggested that Patience was in love with her sister-in-law Martha from the start. The two became friends prior to Martha meeting Patience's brother Edward and falling for him. Patience is bitter that Martha "chose" Edward over her, but she's since moved onto a more requited relationship with Sarah.
  • Sweet on Polly Oliver: Sarah's travelling buddy Parson admits that he's attracted to "Sam". Unfortunately for him, Sarah isn't into men. This ends in Sarah revealing her sex. Subverted in that Parson really did love Sarah as a man, not because he subconsciously knew she was female.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Sarah had always planned on going to York state disguised as a man. After being beaten up by her dad, Sarah runs away. She cuts off her hair and begins passing as "Sam".
  • The Tease: Patience is prone to teasing Sarah to get a rise out of her.
  • Unnamed Parent: Played straight with Sarah's father and Patience's parents. However, Sarah's mother is named Ira Dowling.
  • Uptown Girl: Sarah's dad disapproves of her friendship with the wealthier Patience. He likes it even less upon learning that it's not platonic.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The novel is based on a painter named Mary Ann Willson who lived with her companion Brundage in the early 19th century.