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  • Mary Jane Holmes (1825–1907)
  • Earl Yarington

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...