A few days after her death, an obituary in the Nation recorded the irony of Mary Jane Holmes’s life and work:
It is an eternal paradox of our world of letters that the books which enjoy the largest sale are barely recognized as existing by the guardians of literary tradition. Mrs. Mary Jane Holmes, who died Sunday at Brockport, N.Y., wrote thirty-nine novels with aggregate sales, it is said, of more than two million copies, and yet she had not even a paragraph devoted to her life and works in the histories of American Literature.(“The Week”)
An irony indeed, especially considering that Holmes, who engaged in the class, gender, and race struggles that encompassed nineteenth-century social politics, took her writing very seriously. Through sentimental romances, short stories, and novellas, Holmes created characters who influence readers toward more equal relations with men and women of all races. In short, positive characters, both minor and major, form, renew, and strengthen bonds with one [End Page 142] another, and the female character—most often the focus of Holmes’s work— learns successfully to negotiate the limited power given her by a patriarchal society divided by race, class, and gender. Therefore, Holmes’s works bring these struggles into context for the modern reader, shedding light on the social issues that were center stage during the nineteenth century. Most important, however, is the way Holmes’s heroines gain independence and freedom: They go out, often on their own accord, into an uncertain world and make new lives for themselves in what Nina Baym calls “undefined space” (188–89). The heroine’s decision to venture into undefined space provides her with an education so she can learn how to thrive and improve not only her own conditions, but also the conditions of others.
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Mary Jane Hawes was born in Brookfield, Massachusetts, on 5 April 1825, to Preston and Fanny Olds Hawes. She was the fifth of nine children and grew up in modest circumstances. At the time, some known members of the Hawes family were active writers. Hawes’s uncle, Reverend Joel Hawes, a preacher in New England, published sermons, and her aunt, Louisa Fisher Hawes, “penned an 1850 memoir of her daughter’s missionary experiences as the child of Reverend Joel Hawes” (Westman 2). Though the Hawes family was poor, they lived in a flourishing intellectual environment wherein, Lisa Logan argues, Holmes was inspired to learn and to write (231). Mary Jane Hawes was described as “a precocious child, with blue eyes and golden hair, . . . fond of dreaming out fancies” that would later be used in her writing, where she would become best known for her “power of description” (“Noted Authoress” 1). Hawes started school at the early age of three and had begun to learn grammar by age six. The gifted young girl was known by her classmates for her storytelling abilities. Her skill at influencing others through storytelling helped her to become one of the most successful, popular writers of the nineteenth century. In fact, she became a schoolteacher at the age of thirteen and published her first article in a local newspaper at fifteen. Her first attempt at writing a novel came shortly after she married Daniel Holmes on 9 August 1849.
Holmes lived much like the heroines of her novels. A successful writer, she served to educate many in the community. Lee Ann Westman notes that Holmes’s extensive travels around the world—to France, Russia, the Far East, and the Mediterranean—were possible due to her literary success and enabled her to show the many artifacts from her travels and hold community social gatherings at “Brown Cottage.” Brown Cottage, the Holmeses’ house in Brockport, New York, became a place for Brockport residents to learn about many different cultures. Even local college students and children were invited to see the artifacts and hear Holmes’s travel stories. These guests, according to Westman, were also treated to many lectures by visiting authors (4–5). Thus, Holmes brought richness and diversity to her community. [End Page 143]
Holmes published her first novel, Tempest and Sunshine, in 1854 and went on to write approximately one novel per year until her death in 1907. Grace Carson concludes that Holmes produced a total of fifty-six fictional works, including novels, novellas, and short stories (4). Holmes left teaching shortly after marrying and devoted her time to writing, which led to a contract with Appleton Press. Though, as historian Donald Koch explains, Appleton was a poor choice in a publisher and the novel’s sales lagged behind those of The Lamplighter, by Maria Susanna Cummins, within a few years Tempest and Sunshine had sold well over two hundred thousand copies, keeping pace with Dickens’s Bleak House (vii). Many of Holmes’s works, Westman claims, appeared in serial form or were first published in periodicals such as the New York Weekly, Lippincott’s, the Atlantic Monthly, People’s Home Journal, and Home Guest. According to Koch, Holmes’s income from the New York Weekly alone was five thousand dollars annually (vii). Holmes maintained copyright of her serialized works and later republished them in novel form. At one time, Westman acknowledges, many libraries carried up to thirty copies of each title in order to meet the demand of Holmes’s readers (19).
Holmes’s work is characterized by accurate rural description, humor, and sentiment, as well as by believable major and minor characters. Elaine K. Ginsberg argues that Holmes’s minor characters are vividly portrayed and that her greatest strength is her ability to paint a realistic picture of “rural domestic life” (319). In short, her minor characters make each novel unique. Jane Tompkins argues that the readers of most sentimental novels found these texts to be “faithful” to real-life events (152–53). Arguably then, Holmes’s characters, both major and minor, appealed to a nineteenth-century audience because the desired qualities of the heroine or hero were widely recognized as real and obtainable.
Beatrice Belknap, known as Bee, exemplifies Holmes’s memorable minor characters. In Forrest House, Bee is the male suitor’s best friend. Bee is such a coquette that, according to the narrator, “she would have flirted in her coffin had the thing been possible” (40); yet, she exhibits leadership, compassion, and femininity, and she is not afraid of physical work. While Bee is at the Nazarites’ Catholic Church service, she decides, rather mischievously, to fool the sisters into thinking that she is a convert:
Once the daring girl had “hollered” herself and had the “power,” and Sister Baker had rejoiced over the new convert who, she said, “carried with her weight and measure!” but when it was whispered about that the whole was done for effect, just to see what they would say, the Nazarites gave poor Bee the go-by, and prayed for her as that wicked trifler until it came to the building of their new church, [End Page 144] when Bee, who was a natural carpenter, and liked nothing better than lath, and plaster, and rubbish, made the cause her own, and talked, and consulted, and paced the ground and drew a plan herself, which they finally adopted, and gave them a thousand dollars besides. Then they all forgave the pretty sinner, who had so much good in her after all, and Bee and Sister Rhoda Ann Baker were the very best of friends, and more than once Rhoda Ann’s plain Nazarite bonnet had been seen in the little phaeton side by side with Bee’s stylish Paris hat, on which the good woman scarcely dared to look lest it should move her from her serene height of plainness and humility.(38)
Though a minor character, Bee is complex and essential to the novel as a whole; she is a wonderful example of a progressive nineteenth-century woman.
As Baym also argues, unlike most popular women writers, Holmes uses the unknown or undefined space as opportunity for her heroines (188–89). Thus, Holmes’s heroine, when faced with loss, moves out of protection and into an undefined space—an unknown city for example—which eventually raises her standing both socially and culturally. Holmes pokes fun at class-consciousness through her literary creations, which, as Baym asserts, result in a humor that moves beyond the characters and criticizes the literary genre (189). In Queenie Heatherton, the heroine Queenie, also known as Reinette, faces many difficulties. Her father dies while he and Reinette are traveling from France, Reinette’s home, and, though wealthy, she finds herself in unknown territory. However, as more is found out about her past, she loses her fortune and decides to travel to Florida and help those dying of yellow fever. In short, her move to undefined space helps her to recover lost family members: She gains back her fortune and returns and marries Phil, the male suitor. Though Reinette discovers what it is like to be from the wealthy class and from the underclass, she always displays good qualities, even before she loses her fortune. Reinette is conscious of the discrimination by those in wealthy positions. In the excerpt below, Reinette scolds Phil’s rival Mr. Beresford because he refuses to consider Reinette’s friend Margery as a good match:
I know perfectly well what you mean, Mr. Beresford, and I despise you for it. Because Margery works—earns her own living—is a dressmaker—you, and people like you, look down upon her from your lofty platform of position and social standing, and I hate you for it; yes, I do, for how are you better than she, I’d like to know. Aren’t you just as anxious for a case to work up as she for a dress to make, and what’s the difference, except that you are a man and she a woman, and so the more to be commended, because she is willing to take care of herself instead of folding her hands in idleness. I tell you, Mr. Beresford, you must do better, or I’ll never speak to you again. (200) [End Page 145]
Examples such as this are not uncommon in Holmes’s work. Her characters almost always question societal injustices with humor and seriousness, and no religion, class, or people is immune to being made fun of by the narrator for any prejudice or hypocrisy she uncovers.
Holmes’s consistent success throughout her career can be attributed to the great popularity of her early novels: Tempest and Sunshine, Lena Rivers, Meadow Brook, and Dora Deane. When Tempest and Sunshine was published, the publisher, according to Helen Papashvily, was hoping for a level of success similar to that of Putnam’s The Wide, Wide World (146). Although Tempest and Sunshine sold slowly at first, Koch reports, in a few years it had sold over 250,000 copies (vii). Notably, Tempest and Sunshine, similar to Holmes’s other novels, is much less dogmatic than The Wide, Wide World and many other popular novels of the period. In addition, Holmes’s heroines are much less isolated, and most choose to go into undefined space. In Tempest and Sunshine, a dual and bitter sibling rivalry between Julia and Fanny causes parental favoritism. Though the novel at first appears to be the simple story of good girl vs. bad girl, the antagonist, Julia, goes out into uncharted territory and works as a seamstress after her attempt to marry Fanny’s first love fails. Though Julia’s aggressiveness as the “bad sister” is sensationalized, her later experience outside of the protective home helps her to bond once again to her family and provides a form of penance for her father, Mr. Middleton, who openly favors Fanny over Julia.
Holmes’s third novel, Lena Rivers, is not another story about two sisters; rather, Holmes describes the effects of class, race, and broken family bonds on Lena, the heroine, and her brother John. Lena and her grandmother are treated poorly by their wealthier relatives, which, Baym claims, occurs “because they are stingy, ashamed of grandmother’s rustic ways, and jealous of Lena’s great beauty” (192). The “rustic” grandmother’s “unintentional deflating of her daughterin- law’s pretensions and conceit,” Baym argues, creates a humorous tension throughout the unwinding plot (193). The novel’s antislavery and antisegregation overtones are also important. Lena and her wealthy relative, Anna, go to work in a blacks-only kitchen to help the ailing cook, while Milly, one of the slaves, criticizes the whites’ hypocritical religion. In fact, Grandmother Rivers, a woman who detests her son’s support of the slavery system, asks her son to free Aunt Polly on Christmas day.
The heroines in Holmes’s partly autobiographical fourth novel, Meadow Brook, and fifth novel, Dora Deane, favor women’s suffrage. Similar to her own heroines, Holmes, a former schoolteacher, knew firsthand the difficult circumstances schoolteachers experienced in the nineteenth century. In Meadow Brook, Rosa, at thirteen years of age, is hired to teach children, some older than [End Page 146] she. She must take turns boarding with her students’ families, handle parental prejudice, and cope with her students’ obnoxious behavior for minimal pay. She falls in love with a much older man, Dr. Clayton, who eventually abandons her because he fears that her low class status may bring him scorn, but Rosa recognizes that her dreams would have been stifled had she married him. Dora Deane grapples more directly with issues of class and gender. Barbara J. McGuire argues that the novel demonstrates two important changes for Victorian women’s literature: First, stronger women replace the sickly mothers and heroines of earlier nineteenth-century fiction (174–75), and second, a more independent heroine, such as Dora, begins to emerge in Holmes’s novels (176–77). Dora must endure being orphaned, and she survives grave illness. In doing so, she achieves more than her mother and Crazy Sal, a disappointed woman who meets Dora when Dora is brought to the same mental institution, could achieve. Mary Kelley argues that Sal desires to have a career as a teacher, a pastor, and a writer. Sal’s alleged insanity, according to Kelley, results from her devastation when a publisher rejects her six-hundred-page book (340). Nonetheless, Sal attempts to teach grammar to Dora and the other residents at the institution, but such desires, Kelley points out, are stifled by George Moreland, the heroine’s suitor, who forbids her to send anything to a publisher (340–42). Sal can write only to entertain family and friends, and, as Kelley observes, “[t]here is apparently nothing for Crazy Sal to do, then, but remain at home” (342). Ironically, Sal is denied the two careers that are available to nineteenth-century middle-class women. Moreover, a man prevents her from writing anything for the public. It could be said that Sal is a representation of suppressed womanhood.
Holmes most likely influenced her female readers, if we attribute literary success to reader demand, in three ways, as Baym claims: First, Holmes did not write for financial need but personal satisfaction; second, her writing success did not come about out of desperation from a failed marriage, but her successful marriage may have contributed to that success; third, her “supportive and encouraging marriage” validated writing as a career for women without the gender constraints that women had found in other pursuits, such as teaching (177–78). As for equal marriage, Holmes’s heroines always choose a supportive partner rather than a controlling one.
I would add that she brought to light the harmfulness of dividing people by class, race, and gender. This insight may help to explain Holmes’s appeal to so many readers. Though Holmes lived in the North, many of her novels are set in the South. Holmes and her husband both taught in Kentucky early in their marriage, and her experience and knowledge of the South carried over into her fiction. During the antebellum period, her protagonists detested slavery. Cousin [End Page 147] Maude emphasizes greater equality for women and blacks. Hugh Worthington offers readers vivid descriptions of the effects of the Civil War—one of the most personal wars in US history. In Cousin Maude, Holmes stresses the importance of positive race relations by championing the father-and-daughter-like relationship between Maude, the white heroine, and John, a black preacher. John, a consistent spiritual guardian to Maude, is rewarded by the whole community for his outstanding citizenship. Hugh Worthington, a misogynistic character, is changed into a new man and an ideal suitor as women from his past appear; he changes further when, though desperate for money, he buys an old helpless slave, Uncle Sam, from the auction block. Later, Uncle Sam saves Hugh from near death after he is wounded fighting for the Union. Nonetheless, the narrator does not simplify but acknowledges the complexities of North/South loyalties; the novel ends with a sense of nervous anticipation and the hero and heroine in prayer with the blacks.
Holmes’s later works shift from the Civil War and slavery to the women’s movement in Queenie Hetherton, a novel in which she creates a new male protagonist who has both masculine and feminine qualities. Everard, Queenie’s suitor, has a gift for home decorating and uses a sewing machine to design dresses and curtains. He never loses these feminine qualities, becoming a more equal partner in his marriage to Queenie. With these characters, we see a transition from traditional values to more active and individual womanhood and manhood. Another example of Holmes’s concern with women’s rights can be found in Holmes’s short story “Red Bird,” a tale of a female bird’s life. While getting food for her newborn babies, the mother bird is captured by male hunters, who imprison her and keep her as a gift for their family. When a good-hearted child sets her free, she discovers that another bird has taken her place as wife and mother. Heartbroken, she returns to her imprisonment. Such events, in “Red Bird” and Holmes’s other short stories, novellas, and novels, held great appeal to all her readers and addressed the problems, feelings, and concerns of the period.
Often, critics focus their attention on writers who seem displaced from their own historical contexts, radical gems who seem to be underappreciated and lost among the volumes of work from better known writers. Mary Jane Holmes was not a radical; she was, in some respects, rather conventional. She was a diplomatic writer who could poke fun at everyone, no matter what her or his station, and offend no one. We do not see black and white marry in a Holmes story, but we do see the persistent injustice of the slavery system and the influence that system had on slaves, slave owners, heroines, and heroes. We do not see the institution of marriage challenged, but we do see the consequences in the lives of those who make ill-conceived choices when choosing [End Page 148] a partner. Holmes does not defy religious doctrine, but she does highlight the hypocrisy of those within several different faiths. Though Holmes’s goal was to write good, pure stories that mothers and daughters could share, she was a successful professional writer, who knew how to handle copyright issues and deal with publishers. Holmes’s body of work is one of the purest examples of American literature, and, within that body of work, we see the fears, prejudices, injustices, hopes, and dreams of a new nation struggling with the concepts of equality and democracy.