This is a marvellously simple book, based on the real-life character of Mary Ann Willson, an American primitive painter of the early 1800’s. If you found The Well of Loneliness rather sentimental, and La Batarde unreadable, this is for you. It’s also for you if you want to know more about one kind of lesbian relationship, for the development of the relationship between Patience and Sarah is described clearly and truly in the first person, both alternating in acting as narrator.
Patience White is a quiet lady of thirty, living with her brother and his family in a small farming town in Connecticut in 1816. She does all the things that a woman did in this sort of environment – cooking, making candles, spinning – but she also paints, has a small private income and has no inclination to marry. ‘I was still young enough to think of marriage, at least to a widower, but I’d never noticed that marriage made anybody else feel better… Well, if a woman’s not going to want marriage, she’d best get busy and want to be a schoolmarm or hire herself out as an embroiderer. All I wanted was to be a painter…’
She also wants, deeply, someone to share her life, and to make this life independant of her rigidly conventional brother and his narrow-minded wife. When Sarah Dowling, twenty-one and tough, arrives with a load of firewood, there’s immediate contact. “I’m Pa’s boy,” says Sarah, ‘he couldn’t get a boy the regular way. Kept getting girls. So he picked me out to be boy because I was biggest.” Sarah in the scandal of the neighbourhood, but she and Patience quickly find that they complement each other, sexually as well as emotionally, and the rest of the book follows their efforts to get away from the village, and to come to terms with their unique situation
The device of having a few chapters written from each girl’s point of view works well on the whole, especially when Sarah goes off to find her own way in the world, believing that she and Patience will never be able to live together. Sarah travels with a book-peddlar, who teaches her to read, and develops her thinking, without disturbing her amusing innocence. When his affection for the young ‘boy’ in breeches and boots seems to become too close, she makes the breakthrough and admits that she is a girl, and goes home to face her angry father and re-establish her love with Patience.
Eventually they do break away, against opposition but with the unexpected help of Patience’s brother, who seems to finally recognise real love, although his shrewish wife certainly don’t have it. Travelling by steamer to the wicked city of New York, and meeting with unexpected help on the way, Patience and Sarah find a small farm near a village on the Hudson, and set up home there. They rebuild the collapsing log cabin, plant their own land, even build their own bed — live there, together, perhaps even happily ever after.
The real painter, Mary Ann Willson and her lover, Miss Brundidge, did exactly that, and this basis in fact adds another delightful facet to the book. I found Patience and Sarah the best recent fiction about lesbians I have read, and a fascinating piece of social history as well.