By Isabel Miller
Alma Routsong, an American novelist who came out as a lesbian writer under the pen name Isabel Miller, is the author of the classic Patience and Sarah. The Love of Good Women, which I chose to read as part of the LGBT reading challenge 2011, is also one the novels that she signed as Isabel Miller – apparently a combination of an anagram for "lesbia" and her mother's birth name.
First published in 1986, The Love of Good Women is set in America towards the end of World War II and is centred on two main female characters, Gertrude and Millie. Married respectively to brothers Earl and Barney, they are both unhappy - even though for different reasons.
Having married across class lines, Gertrude is an extremely insecure woman. She looks up at her husband, who, in her eyes, could do nothing wrong. Ever. If he’s mean to her or is impatient, she thinks it’s her fault for being a woman and as such, in his words, a “stupid and inferior creature”. She believes that being a grown-up means having to think about others and never about yourself. I must admit that all this self-flagellation and the excessive revering of Earl irritated me considerably at first.
Millie’s husband is the gentle and understanding Barney, who loves her so much that he married her despite knowing that she is attracted to women. They both hoped that their marriage would help her become a “real woman” - rather than the “pervert” Earl thinks she is - but things are not turning out that way. In fact, Millie is so desperate to love and be loved by a woman that, as we learn at the beginning of the book, she is “in danger of loving any woman who held out her hand and some who didn’t”.
And then things change! Encouraged by Earl, Gertrude starts working in a factory to raise more money. The new independence and the friendship of the women whom she works alongside give her more confidence and the courage to stand up to her mean husband. At the same time, Barney goes to war and Millie finds herself free to pursue her desires and find the companion she had longed for.
Despite the initial annoyance at Gertrude’s self-inflicted humiliation, I highly enjoyed this novel. I can see now how that first part was essential to better appreciate the change in her behaviour but I still think it could have been kept a little shorter. In any case, it was so rewarding to see her transformation, page after page. Not to mention the development of her attitude towards Millie - not quite in the way I had imagined when I picked up this book but not, for this reason, any less pleasing.
All in all, a sweet story with very credible characters and an ending that will leave a smile on your face!