By Michelle E. Brown
I am a book nerd, a library card carrying, bibliophile. There is nothing more satisfying to me than curling up with a good book. A real book – hard cover, paper back – not an e-book but a book I can hold in my hands, turn a page and place a book mark. Oh the glory, the joy of the written word. I love books!
My experience with audio books has been limited to road trips.
The narrators often unknown. The story broken up by conversations and sometimes left incomplete when the trip ended before the final CD. I found audio books entertaining, yes, but wondered if they could truly be engaging, take you to faraway places or stir the emotions like a “real” book.
With no road trip on the horizon I settled down in my comfy chair, put on my head phones and popped in the first cd of Isabel Miller’s “Patience and Sarah” to see if this audio release of the 1971 historical fiction could meet my expectations.
Knowing the tale was narrated by legendary singer, songwriter Janis Ian and Emmy award winning actress/director Jean Smart heightened my expectations. Being a big fan of the author Sarah Waters, whom I since discovered was inspired by this very novel, my curiosity was piqued by the strong lesbian theme of this historical fiction.
The familiarity of Jean Smart’s voice as Patience White immediately drew me into the story, welcoming me like an old friend into her parlor to tell me the story not only of these two incredible women but providing a window into a time when women’s lives were governed by a code defined by class and male privilege.
From the beginning Smart’s voice paints a picture of Patience not just her curiosity and her passion but how her beliefs are strongly influenced by the affluence she is born into. She has education and property which both inspires her possibilities but initially restricts her own belief that she can attain her dreams.
Smart so convincingly portrays Patience’s amusement, flirtation, seduction and manipulation of Sarah Dowling that I was at times infuriated by her games while at the same time titillated by Patience’s expression of love, growing passion and those kisses.
With the slightest inflection of her voice Smart is able to seamlessly portray all the characters in Patience’s world not only as an insider sharing religious beliefs, societal attitudes, and expected behaviors but also as an outsider straining at the bits to escape the boundaries, the limitations of her lot in life.
As Patience’s world expands with Sarah, she continues to provide insight to that other world where even women of her background are seen but often not heard and those deemed of a lower class, male or female, are at risk and/or in peril simply because of their station in life.
Ian’s Sarah Dowling paints a picture of a different world – A harsher world of hard work, duty and resignation to place. Was Sarah’s love for women nature or nurture? The harshness of her world made her “a boy.” It’s just the way it was there was no son in the family, she was big and strong so she became the son – dressing, working being treated like the male child.
Ian’s raspy reading of Sarah helped you visualize this tall woman/boy walking the fine line between the masculine and the feminine.
In the phrasing and use of words as Sarah, her family and the world through Sarah’s eyes, you saw a world clearly different than Patience’s.
Her gender, gender identity and class were like a chain holding Sarah down, denying her the possibility of hope for freedom let alone happiness.
The times said dictated “it was a man’s world” but even after mastering all manly affectations, Sarah Dowling still found herself the outsider ever fearful of discovery of her womanhood not only by the world but by her own heart as well. The only escape was to escape to a place where she could be free.
As I listened to Ian’s portrayal of Sarah Dowling I thought of her song “Society’s Child.” Sarah was not the person singing the song but the person being sung about. Sarah was called by so many names – an oddity, a runaway servant, an abomination, not welcome inside of respectable homes in 1816 society. She wasn’t Patience’s kind.
Did Ian feel the empathetic resonance between Sarah Dowling and the unnamed “other” in her song and see this as an opportunity to give voice to the person she had written/sang about in her 1965 hit? Rather consciously or subconsciously, she “brought it” to her portrayal of Sarah Dowling.
Miller’s fiction took place in a world that was not fair to the Sarah Dowling’s of the world – the uneducated, poor, gay and otherwise oppressed who historically searched for that promised land where they could begin again and, through the fruit of their labor, find freedom.
“Patience and Sarah” is historic fiction but so much more. Through Patience and Sarah’s eyes we are able to see a world that once existed in history and, in some ways, offers insight into some evils we are still addressing in society today.
It is also a story of transformative love. Both women evolve over the course of the novel finding new strength because of their love. As much as they change they gain a greater understanding of and are able to adapt the very things that had at one time held them down to help them navigate the road blocks and achieve their goal of living free.
And yes, it is a love story that is tender, sensual and passionate with all the ups and downs of any relationship. It’s a story of women loving women in all its complexity, beauty and sweet kisses. Women loving women, much more than roles and labels, they were beautiful, tender and wild.
Kudos to Janis Ian and Jean Smart. They took Ms. Miller’s novel and with their remarkable voices alone brought not only the characters but their world to life.
I still love a good book but the audiobook of Isabel Miller’s “Patience and Sarah” narrated by Janis Ian and Jean Smart gave me a literary eargasm of epic proportion. Don’t wait for a road trip to indulge yourself.
Michelle E. Brown is a Public Speaker, Activist and Author. You can follow her writing and activities at www.mychangeiam.com and on www.twitter.com/mychangeiam