J’s Take on A Dooryard Full of Flowers

“A Dooryard Full of Flowers” is the short story sequel to Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller. Except it would be more exact to call it a very-unfinished novel. I have a bunch of novels in just this state of completion! Well.. perhaps not a bunch, but some.

This story covers the part of the lives of Patience and Sarah that I was most interested in reading about. I wanted to hear about how they set up their home, built it up, made it cozy, faced adversity, got along with the neighbors, etc, etc.

Well, I got an itty bitty bit of that from this story. Lesigh.

The first part, and the large part it, is told from the point of view of a neighboring farmer. And his view of the women is very weird. He seems to think they’re strange, and not get that they’re shacking up together, of course. But he also goes on and on admiring them. Wanting them to be independent and succeed. All the while snickering behind his wife’s back that she thinks the women would be fine wives for their sons. He thinks they’re unsuitable for his sons because.. well, I think basically because they’d be hard to control and just not very pleasant to be married to.

That’s not resolved or anything, but they all pay a visit (sons included), and think the house is dressed up rather frivolously, with all of Patience’s pictures that they don’t realize are Patience’s. And then the wife comes out of it not liking them at all, for some slight or other.

Then we get Sarah’s point of view for a bit. In which we get a completely silly scene involving Patience thinking to be fair and equal, she needs to work in the fields. Which is completely ridiculous if they expect to survive on this stupid farm. She decides she’s rubbish at the hoeing and whatnot, because she’s not wearing pants. So then, IN THE MIDDLE OF THE WORKING DAY, they trot back home so Sarah can undress and a pattern of her clothes can be cut, so Patience can make similar clothes for herself.

And well, that’s about it. The story, or the novel fragment, or whatever you want to call it, stops.

Two girls try to play house and farm, and are all set to utterly fail and starve to death.


Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller: B-

From the back cover:
Early in the nineteenth century, in a puritanical New England town, two women did something unspeakable, something unheard of—they fell in love with each other. With nothing and no one to guide or support them, Patience and Sarah tried to follow their hearts.

And when family pressures separated them, the two women dreamed of leaving their homes, of being together. Defying society and history, they bought a farm and discovered they could live together, away from a world that had put limits on them and their love.

Patience White has been provided for. Her father’s will made certain that there would always be a place for her in her devout brother’s Connecticut home, but that isn’t enough to make Patience happy. She doesn’t want the things that a woman of her age (late twenties) should want, and though she helps out around the house, Edward’s wife, Martha, makes her feel guilty for desiring privacy to work on her paintings. When she meets Sarah Dowling, conscripted to serve as “Pa’s boy” in the absence of any male siblings and entirely unaware that her manners shock more proper folk, she is immediately intrigued.

Kisses soon ensue, followed by Sarah’s inability to realize that some things should be kept secret, a journey in boy’s clothes, vague yet plentiful sex scenes, manipulation by Patience to get Sarah to agree to come away with her, familial discovery, further journeying, and finally settling into farm life in New York. The narrative alternates between perspectives with occasionally amusing results (I enjoyed their differing accounts of their final parting with Edward) but with much repetition, since each woman experiences periods of insecurity as well as triumph in the knowledge that she can leave the other wanting her. One strange side effect was that although I disliked Sarah at the beginning of the novel, due to her remarkable lack of common sense, by the end I thought she was by far the better (and more genuine) of the two, since Patience could be deceitful in her quest to get her way.

I had expected, owing largely to the rhapsodies experienced by the leads in Annie on My Mind as they read and reread this book, that Patience & Sarah would be at least a little romantic, but really, it is not. Instead, I’d describe it as carnal. When I say that “kisses soon ensue,” I mean really soon, and with little preamble as to why these women are drawn to each other. Suddenly, it’s just instant passion. There are some parts of the novel that I liked—slice-of-life passages about chopping wood and sewing curtains, card games they play with Sarah’s mother, or the stray dog that promptly adopts them when they get to their new home—but I couldn’t care much about the characters or their relationship. Plus, all the parts that I liked are sullied by the ending, in which Patience declares that now that they have their own place they will “make the bed gallop,” which makes it seem that everything they’ve done has been with coital goals in mind.

Another thing I noticed is that nearly everyone else in the novel is made to desire the protagonists. Sarah’s sister offers to do for her whatever Patience does (eww), it’s suspected that Edward likes to imagine the two of them together, Sarah’s traveling companion tries to put the moves on her (granted, he thinks she’s a boy at the time), and one of Martha’s main objections to the relationship is that Patience is fooling around with someone “outside of the family.” I’m not sure what to make of this, honestly. With Edward and Martha it could be a case of pointing out their hypocrisy, but what of the others?

In the end, Patience & Sarah was not what I’d expected it to be. If this had been a straight romance, I might not even have finished it.


Patience and Sarah (Isabel Miller)

The Plot
It’s 1816 and Patience White is a spinster whose father saw to it that she’d not be dependant upon the charity of her brother after his death. With food, money and a place to live assured, she should be content and able to enjoy her life, but she is restless. She finds herself interested in one Sarah Dowling, a daughter of a man with only girl children who has been trained up to be his “son”. The two form a plan to move away together, but Patience loses her nerve and Sarah attempts to go west (from Connecticut to upstate New York) without her.

My Thoughts
I’m going to try something different this time and write a running review as I make my way through the book.

I’ll be upfront: I was reluctant to read this book in the first place, but eventually capitulated. So I had a prejudice against it from the get go. This was not improved upon seeing the book’s cover, which for some reason turns me off utterly. The image is not actually that awful — two women, presumably Patience and Sarah — in somewhat cartoony form, standing next to one another. It generated instant hate in me and destroyed any possible urge to want to read the book.

So I didn’t. Eventually putting it off added its own block to my resistance to reading it and it became extremely difficult to pick it up. I finally forced myself to do so by bringing only it to work with me and reading it during my meal break.

The book thus far is decidedly mediocre. I venture to say that had this book not involved two women, it would have been long forgotten and weeded from any library collection. But it does and so achieves a status I’m not sure it really deserves.

Patience and Sarah inhabit an intensely chauvinistic world, where women have little value other than as baby machines. Their opinions are neither respected nor sought and they are made old before their time with repeated childbearing. The menfolk around them seem aware of the strange difference in status between men and women, mildly puzzled by it, but not especially driven to fix it. The women seem aware as well, but again, have no interest in fixing it. I’m sure this is a true description to some extent, but something about it just feels… off. Almost everyone around them seems beaten down and lifeless — Patience’s sister-in-law Martha, Sarah’s mother and father — unable to take joy in anything at all without the assistance of Patience herself.

Patience and Sarah find each other seemingly by chance. I found the development of their relationship to be too quick for my taste. First they’ve barely met and then suddenly they’re going to run away together and Sarah is enduring multiple beatings from her father because of her flaming passion for Patience? Eh. (Let it be said that I find this sort of goings on in heterosexual relationships twinky as well.) Perhaps it was meant as some kind of lame Romeo and Juliet metaphor (see previous comment about heterosexual twinkiness).

In any case, because they know each other hardly at all, they end up essentially breaking up over a misunderstanding (now there’s a plot I love. Not.) and Sarah sets off on her own disguised as a boy. Except that she doesn’t really have any idea of what ‘setting off on her own’ entails and she ends up wandering around western New England with a Minister who apparently has a weakness for young men. Huck Finn she is not.

Eventually Sarah returns, having failed at accomplishing much of anything, and Patience, who mysteriously has been allowed to work as a school teacher (this also struck me as odd; it had been my impression that the teaching profession as staffed mostly by young women was a post Civil War innovation) decides that they are going to get back together. By this point I was finding it really hard to muster any sort of interest at all in their doings, so their subsequent naughty make-out sessions at Patience’s house did little for me.

As the book continued, it seemed more clear that their relationship, while it may have had physical attraction, didn’t really seem founded on any sort of rational basis. They still hardly knew one another at all, and there was very little mutual respect or trust. One or the other of them seemed to be constantly in a panic that the other was no longer interested in them or would be mad about some random deception. Which deception would never have been necessary had they been actual friends who had real conversations.

That they had started to develop this sort of by the end of the book was good, except — it was the end of the book.

In Short
I didn’t go into this book with a good attitude and the book didn’t manage to erase my prejudice with its sheer awesomeness. The relationship between Patience and Sarah was poorly developed and I never managed to find myself concerned about their well-being or their eventual success in life.


J’s Take on Patience and Sarah

It’s been a couple of weeks now since I finished reading Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller. I totally should’ve written the review right after I finished it. Or, at the least, taken notes. I know this, yet I’ll probably repeat the same mistake anyway.
Patience and Sarah is a historical novel about two women on […]

It’s been a couple of weeks now since I finished reading Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller. I totally should’ve written the review right after I finished it. Or, at the least, taken notes. I know this, yet I’ll probably repeat the same mistake anyway.

Patience and Sarah is a historical novel about two women on neighboring farms who find each other and start making plans to move out “West”. And I have to put that in quotes, because if upstate New York is out West, then why didn’t anyone teach me how to lasso a dogie when I was growing up?

What struck me when I first started reading it was the rhythm. It put my head in a calm sort of place and after my first session or two of reading, the book hung around in my head as I was doing other things. I don’t know if that’s the sign of a good book, the sign of a book that’s something new and different for me, or maybe the sign of a book that I’m reading at the right place and time for the universe to align. I won’t say it rarely happens, but it doesn’t usually happen when I’m reading a book, that the world and characters stick with me and I’m eager to go back to reading.

Patience is an old maid of 20-something (and if I hadn’t forgotten, I could tell you the exact number) living with her brother and his wife and their children. She’s got a pretty sweet setup, as her father cared enough about her to provide in his will for her. She’s guaranteed a room of her own and two cows and whatnot. Her only real problem is she doesn’t get along with her sister-in-law and feels obligated to help out with the chores rather than spend time painting as she’d like to. I started being interested in her at this point. She’s got an unusual setup and doesn’t seem to be all ‘woe is me, I’ll never get a man’. Breath of fresh air, that.

Then we, and Patience, meet Sarah. Sarah’s from a farming family that only managed to produce girls. So her father chose her as the biggest and strongest of the girls to turn into a boy. Their family doesn’t go to church or seem to interact much with their neighbors, so mostly being a boy means she helps out with the boy chores, and dresses in a practical boy fashion for doing so. Her hair’s long though.

They meet, they fall in love, they talk about moving to York State together, Sarah blabs about it, families get in an uproar. Sarah sets off on her own instead. And here’s the most annoying part of the book for me. I wanted them both to set off together and build a life together. I wanted the book to be about that. Instead we get Sarah going off as a man to make her way in the world and buy some land and set up a life for herself. But she’s rubbish at it. No one believes she’s 21. They all think she’s an escaped apprentice. So, rather than lie and say she’s 15 or a more reasonable age for a boy with no stubble, and make up a nice non-apprenticey story to go with it, she just keeps telling the truth and getting into trouble. But she meets up with someone who doesn’t care and her world is broadened. And then she goes home.

And Patience and Sarah clear up some misunderstanding or something stupid and angsty. And they start meeting regularly for makeout sessions on Patience’s bed. And here’s another annoying part of the book. Because I was never clear on how far they went. First base was obvious, second base is touched upon, but then it’s all vagueness. Grr. I don’t care if it’s all implied. Just make sure you’re implying in a way that’s clear to me.

More trouble ensues, but I’ll leave the rest in non-spoilery territory.

One very awesome thing in this book is the point of view. I think Miller actually taught me something here, as I came to realize what she was doing, rather than just noticing it. At first, the story is told by Patience in first person. She’s even the one to relate Sarah’s point of view, in a way that makes it clear Sarah must have told her about those parts at some point in the future. But she also slips in little comments about what Sarah must have been thinking or feeling, or how other characters must’ve been thinking or feeling, that contradict what Sarah told her about the situation.

When Sarah goes off on her own, we finally get her point of view straight from the horse’s mouth, and we see what we knew all along. That she’s not as ignorant and naive as Patience seems to think she is. Though she is a bit. It’s not a radical change.

Then when they meet up again, we get more of Patience’s little comments. So you come to really get a sense for Patience’s personality just from how Miller used point of view. Patience thinks she’s better than Sarah in a lot of ways; more well-bred, more sophisticated, older, smarter, wiser. You get the sense she’d like to think she’s in control of the relationship. While Sarah’s on the other side striving for equality and the give-and-take the relationship’s going to need if it’s going to last.

So, cool book. It’s one I’d read again. Even while wishing they’d gone out West to set up their little homestead in chapter 3. Maybe I’ll have to be the one to write that book.