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.