‘Edward had made his wishes quite clear on two or three subjects. The most important of these was sons. His wife was to go on having babies until she produced a son – or even two sons – for the number was a minor matter compared to the gender. When Star was born he had said Poor old girl, better luck next time. And with Sue it was, I say, old thing, don’t make a habit of this. And with Sal, with rather a gloomy expression, Another of them, what! So that Patience had untruthfully said she was sorry, and must have looked so submissive that he had kissed her as briskly as ever and immediately said Never mind; we’ll try again’.
Patience, John Coates, Pg.31
Although Persephone Books generally concern themselves with publishing lesser-known female authors of the twentieth century, or the lesser-known works of established female authors, Patience is, in fact, an exception in that it is written by the male author, John Coates. In 1953, the year of its publication, the preface by Maureen Lipman informs us that Patience was banned in Ireland – ‘This is such a naughty book’ (Patience, pg.vi). And this is indeed a very naughty book if you consider the era of the 1950s and the fact that it is about a young, married, Catholic woman.
Patience Gathorne-Galley is a 28 year-old woman married to the older, non-Catholic Edward. They have three beautiful, healthy daughters. Yet, as the above quote makes clear, daughters were secondary-beings compared to the prospect of producing a son, an heir. Patience’s duties as a wife are quite clear and she follows them unquestioningly. She is the quietly submissive wife men such as Edward – a patronisingly, bum-patting old man – can only dream of acquiring. Yet men like Edward like to venture outside of the home on occasion – as Lionel, Patience’s strict Catholic brother, will relish telling her one afternoon over tea.
‘She must love Edward very much’, Patience murmured.
‘Well, to do that if she isn’t married to him. And not taking any money either’.
Patience, John Coates, Pg.12
However, as we can see, rather than showing the expected reaction of a wife who has been cheated on, Patience is more amused by the news of her husband’s affair. She cannot understand why any woman would want to sleep with her husband unless under the obligation of marriage. This would suggest the lack of experience and the lack of choice Patience has had with men. She is naive – so naive that I find it difficult to take her seriously at times. Lionel, on the other hand, is a God-fearing man whose unhealthy obsession with Sin (capital ‘S’) is probably due to the lack of sex he is receiving, or not receiving as the case may be, from his wife who has locked herself into a convent. It is only natural, then, that he should point the finger of Sin at his sister:
‘A wife has a duty in these matters’, explained Lionel, just as Father Thomas had explained six and a half years ago and off and on ever since as well. ‘A very strict duty. She has to preserve the marriage. If by refusing to submit to her husband she drives him out of the house for satisfaction elsewhere, she must accept some of the responsibility for his Sin herself’.
Patience, John Coates, Pg.12
It is clear that Lionel is directing this not only at Patience, but at his absent wife too. Yet, unlike Edward, the rules of his faith inhibit him from finding satisfaction elsewhere. The only outlet for his frustration is to berate his sister for driving her husband into the arms of another woman because, of course, she has to be partly to blame for it.
However, Coates’s novel is not just a simple, straight-forward tale of adultery. After the initial shock of finding out about her husband’s infidelity, Patience goes out for the night with her sister, brother-in-law and their friend, Philip, to a nightclub. What follows is the almost immediate consummation of a love affair between Patience and Philip. The rest of the novel explores Patience’s attempt to obtain a divorce from her husband and marry Philip whilst navigating the path of a Sin-free life (if that is at all possible).
What I like about Coates’s novel is his clever depiction and exposure of the double standards of 1950s society, which is almost akin to that of Victorian England. There is one set of values for men in society and another for women, which is made even more complicated when we take into account the strong Catholic presence in the novel. Not only is Patience beginning to understand the unfairness of a woman’s lot – the fact that she goes straight from her family home to the home of her husband means she has had no experience of making her own decisions – she is also experiencing a sexual and religious awakening. As she claims on numerous occasions when sleeping with Philip: How can something that feels so good be called Sin?
Yet, I had a number of misgivings about Patience. Although the protagonist is beginning to assert herself more as the novel progresses, she is still wholly reliant on men. Instead of gaining more independence in her new-found knowledge of sex, Patience appears to just transfer her dutiful and submissive attributes to Philip:
‘[…] it would be nice if she was more perfect, inside and out, just for Philip’s sake’.
Patience, John Coates, Pg.118
‘She looked again at Philip, to whom the allegiance she no longer owed Edward had been transferred. It was surely for him to say what she should do’.
Patience, John Coates, Pg.176
There are also a number of highly unlikely events that occur throughout Patience. For example, the fact that Philip would take on a wife who already has three children (with another on the way) after only meeting her once, seems so improbable that it is almost farcical. Though, as Tribute magazine told its readers, there is ‘no melodrama – or pornography here. Patience is a truly delightful, idyllic story of a simple soul’s discovery of the beauties of sexual love and her attempts to reconcile it with her mild Catholicism and her ardent maternal love’. Of course, Patience would not have risked her faith to plunge into Sin with someone who wasn’t devoted to her.
I would like to think that John Coates was acutely aware of how his ‘risqué’ novel would be spun to fit the norms of a society that still considered sex outside of marriage – especially when applied to women – as sexually-deviant and sinful. Despite the outrageously absurd details of the novel’s plot, there is an underlying seriousness and criticism of English society. The fact that Coates is championing the right for women to experience the same sexual gratification as men is an important landmark for a novel of the 1950s and worth reading just for that.