A Kindred Mary Jane

You’ve probably heard of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the bestselling female American author of the 19th century, due in part to the unprecedented first-year sales (300,000 copies) of her anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But what about the second highest selling female author? That would be Mary Jane Holmes (1825–1907).

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Why haven’t we read about this Mary Jane in our early-American literary history? Mostly because male critics of the time dismissed the writings of women authors as being “too sentimental,” appealing only to the common person. Her obituary, published in The Nation, said:
“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.”

But today, these books give us a glimpse of life as it was for our female counterparts in 1800s America. After all, we can’t all live at Downton Abbey! Mary Jane’s books tackled the serious issues of gender, class, war, and the injustice of slavery through the eyes of feisty females we can identify with. They were wildly popular with women of the time, and many libraries were said to have carried up to 30 copies of each title in order to meet the demand of her readers.

I’ll admit I picked up two of her books (one in the Photo of the Day, above, and one below) at a secondhand store because of their beautiful covers, but once I looked inside, not only was I delighted to discover her first name (the covers just listed “Holmes”), I was thoroughly enchanted with her turn of phrase and her accounts of the strong, independent women of yesteryear.

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Mary Jane grew up, one of nine children, in a family of modest means, but one that encouraged intellectual thought, even for its girls. She started her schooling at just 3 years of age, began to learn grammar by 6, went on to start teaching school at 13, and published her first story in a local newspaper at 15. (My own mother was a newspaper columnist when she was just 14 years old. Long before computers, even before fountain pens, her columns were delivered 50 miles, once per week, via Model T to a Salt Lake City newspaper.)

In later years, Mary Jane married fellow teacher Daniel Holmes, and after some success with her writing (her first novel, Tempest and Sunshine, sold a whopping 250,000 copies), traveled extensively (including France, Russia, the Far East, and the Mediterranean), and returned to hold social gatherings, where she used her gift of storytelling to educate community members about different cultures. After Tempest and Sunshine, she continued to write one novel per year until her death.

While reading about her, I ran across a quote that hit home with this MaryJane: “Mary Jane was described as ‘a child with blue eyes and golden hair, fond of dreaming out fancies.'” Fond of dreaming out fancies sound familiar, family?

Leave a comment 21 Comments

  1. Winnie Nielsen says:

    I have never heard of this Mary Jane either. Thank-you for introducing her to us. I would love to read some of her works and I will see if our library carry any of them. The covers on both books are beautiful and what a lucky find to come across. Have you read your books yet? I especially love the parallel with the MaryJane we know and love!

    • MaryJane says:

      I have not, other than to dash through them enough to get a feel for how she writes and to find some nuggets. They’re on my 90s book shelf–when I turn 90, I get to read EVERYTHING from start to finish!!!!

      • Winnie Nielsen says:

        Wow, I couldn’t be patient to wait that long! But then, since Downton Abby, I have become keenly interested in the late 1890s leading up to and now including WWII. There is so much I don’t know about the turn of the century which was when my parents were born. I want to learn more about the changing social roles of women like the Suffragettes. The Bees in America book I read talks about women’s roles in hive keeping and how it changed their lives for the better. I was fascinated to learn that between the 1920s up to as late as 1988, there were women’s clubs established around bees? In particular was the African American Busy Bee Home Society that started in Nebraska. After the Civil War, bee keeping was one enterprise that helped women in the Jim Crow South and for freed men to work in agriculture by owning bee hives. The notes on the women’s club states that there would be a fine if anyone showed up at a meeting wearing something besides a house dress!! My kinda girls!

  2. Karlyne says:

    I have been NEEDING a reference like this one! I’ve found that, especially the younger generation (oh, them youngsters!)(mostly my Goodreads book clubs), see the females born before, oh, about 1970, to have been universally repressed and abused and enslaved. I’m not downplaying the sufferings of those who were, but women are women and always have been, and there have always been strong, intelligent women who made the lives that they wanted. Amen, Sisters, amen!

  3. Karlyne says:

    I just had another thought! (Taduh!) Is one of the reasons that women figure so slightly in history books because men have also bought into, albeit unthinkingly, the idea that because women have been so repressed, they can’t possibly have any history worth noting? I mean, besides the fact that history books are full of battles, and most women just aren’t interested in showing up for wars, unless forced into them?

  4. Connie says:

    I so enjoyed reading this!! I am on the hunt for her books! Since my retired, Special Ed. Teacher( hubby ) searches books stores, all over the county every week, I have another author to add to his list!

  5. Corri Riebow says:

    I just did a search on Amazon for her books and discovered there are many available in the Kindle version for free! Nothing beats the look/smell/feel and read of a real book, but to be able to download so many of her novels for free is kind of a nice treat!

  6. I , like my fellow farmgirls, shall also be looking for her books. I love reading ” dated” novels that tell it like it is for that time period . I usually put the books or authors I am seeking on Alibris.com and Half.com. on their wish lists. They do eventually show up.
    And yes Karlyne, men wrote the history books and there you have it, they discounted all the women and their accomplishments. Like we are always saying, we need ” herstory” books.

  7. Nancy Coughlin says:

    I will definitely be on the watch for “Holmes” books!! Thank you, thank you, thank you for bringing her to our consciousness. I have 15 bookshelves scattered around my home and have to admit that at least 90% of the books on the shelves are by female authors. It is criminal the way females authors have been relegated to second-class status, by males. While not a raving feminist, it is too easy to see how so many of the strides made by our female ancestors are slipping away or forgotten by young women today. I do not have TV, so I spend more than ,y spare times reading. And I too prefer to hold a book in my hands, even though I do have a Kindle. I use the Kindle for travel, although I always find bookstores and return home with many books to add to my overburdened shelves. Have I read all of mt books? Not yet, but I am surely trying. Love to hear about new or unknown female authors, so keep on introducing them! Thanks again.

  8. Winnie Nielsen says:

    This thread led me to Ebay where I purchased Meadow Brook, her fifth book, first published in 1857. My copy was printed in 1900. It contains a lovely photo on the front in black and white which I am guessing is Mary Jane Holmes as a young girl. This story is a love story and the details, according to Mary Jane, reminisce her own life between the ages of 13 and 18. It reminded me of Jane Austen’s books where the heroine is full of a gritty, determination to make their way forward. Living in the South all of my life, Meadow Brook was especially interesting to me because part of it took place in Georgia before the Civil War. Mary Jane offers us her perspective, as a northerner, suddenly finding herself living on a plantation as governess to the children of the owner.

    Last week, I purposely went hunting in some area antique shops for more books written by her but found none. However, I will be henceforth looking for that special moment when I find one buried in the usual pile of dusty books in those antique shops crammed with everything! There is something special about holding an old book and turning the pages of history. Plus, sometimes there are names and best wishes written in the front if the book was a gift. Those brief words are another whole story of someone we will never know.

    • Karlyne says:

      That’s great, Winnie! I just picked up a Kathleen Norris book at a thrift store, published in 1929, which touted the her as “America’s most beloved author”. I’m sure that I’ve never heard of her, and since I’ve been reading everything I come across for decades and decades, especially the “old” stuff, I’m amazed that I haven’t! According to the Wiki article, she wrote over 45 books and, yes, indeed, was immensely popular and was the #1 selling American for years. I’m about halfway through “Red Silence”, and I’m putting her on my list of authors to find, too.

      • MaryJane says:

        Kathleen Norris wrote “Dakota” that I read and loved many years ago. Her background story is amazing.

  9. Karlyne says:

    That’s the modern-era Kathleen Norris, MJ! (I love her writing. One of my favorites of hers is The Quotidian Mysteries. I love that I now know what “quotidian” means.). This older one, apparently no relation, was born in 1880 and published 93 (!) novels, most of which were best-sellers. She was one of the highest-paid American writers for almost 50 years! And I just now found her. How serendipitous that she was reposing on a thrifty store shelf with a $.65 price tag on her!

  10. Winnie Nielsen says:

    Karlyne, thanks for this new name to pursue. And your purchase for a $.65 price tag is indeed lucky! I love mysteries so I am very intrigued to find some of her works.

  11. Winnie Nielsen says:

    Update Flash. I just found and ordered an old hardbound copy of Kathleen Norris’ book Mother on Ebay for $1. Needless to say it is mine now! Looking forward to reading more. The Wikipedia blurb has her right in that mix of women like Mary Jane Holmes who were out to make a difference and help bring about change for women. Great summer reading list expanding this year.

    • Karlyne says:

      I was happy to find the book, but as I’m reading it, I’m just getting happier and happier! Love the writing!

      • Winnie Nielsen says:

        Karlyne, I just finished my copy of Kathleen Norris’s book, Mother. It was so good and I did enjoy her style of writing. She is very easy to read and so down to earth in her character portrayal.

        Thanks for this lead and I will certainly be out on the look for more books by her. They are sure hard to find!

        • Karlyne says:

          I ordered a copy of Mother from Amazon and it shipped yesterday, so I’m excited to get it and see if it’s as good as Red Silence!

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