Mary Jane Holmes: Brockport’s Authoress

Mary Jane Holmes

Mary Jane Holmes was born in 1828 in Brookfield, Massachusetts to parents Preston and Fanny Hawes and was the fifth child of the nine Hawes children. While her father encouraged her education and literary attempts, her mother passed on to Mary Jane a love of romance and poetry.1 She was a precocious child and began teaching in the Pine Hill District School at age 13.

At a very young age, Mary Jane invented imaginary characters and scenes for stories she created in her head and would someday write.

In an interview published in the Buffalo Express, Mary Jane said, “I wonder if I could make you understand what kind of a child I was. I was left very much to myself and did a great many things people thought were unusual. I lived where men and woman and their little ones came and went and grew up. I preferred the companionship of these shadowy beings to the real ones. My imaginary friends came to me at all times and places. They encouraged me, loved me, and said many clever things. Sometimes, I received them while sitting on the top of a rail fence in my father’s lane. I used to tell the girls at school that I would one day write books and they would read them. They laughed at me, but I always knew my plan would come true.”2

Her brother and sister left home at a young age to pursue their dreams. Mary Jane followed in their footsteps. She left New England and entered the Female Seminary in Canandaigua, NY.

In 1844, Mary Jane took a teaching position in the district school in Allen’s Hill, NY. While teaching in that school, she established a young lady’s school, which she called the Laurel Hill Seminary. In 1846, she taught in the neighboring village of Honeoye for two years.

During that period of time, she sometimes boarded at the Holmes’ Tavern.3 There she met Daniel Holmes, formerly of West Bloomfield, who at that time was a law student at Yale University.

Daniel was quiet, studious, frail, three years younger, and several inches shorter than Mary Jane. He admired her courage and adventurous spirit and became interested in her.4

After graduation from Yale in 1848, Daniel was hired to teach Latin in a female seminary in Versailles, Kentucky. At the end of the term, he returned to Allen’s Hill where he and Mary Jane married on August 8, 1949 at St. Paul’s Church.5 Little did he imagine that one day his new bride would be a public figure.

The couple returned to Versailles where they both taught in the seminary and the following year taught at Glen’s Creek District School. Although they had made lasting friendships, Daniel missed the Empire State and took a position to teach Latin at Canandaigua Academy and practiced law on the side.6

After he gave up his teaching position in 1853 to pursue a law degree, the couple moved to Brockport, NY, which became their permanent home. For a year, Daniel read and studied law. He received an M.A. from the University of Rochester and was admitted to the bar.

It was finally time for Mary Jane to pursue her literary career in earnest. She used rural settings and people she met for inspiration. Soon, her prophecy to her young school friends came true. At age 29, she published her first novel, Tempest and Sunshine, which sold 250,000 copies.7

Her number of loyal followers continued to increase. During her lifetime, Mary Jane wrote 39 novels with sales of more than two million copies.8 She wrote about gender, class, and race relations. While literary critics often panned her work, the American public found something wholesome in her stories. She became successful financially, had wider circulation, and earned larger royalties than other American women authors of her time.9

Her most successful novel was undoubtedly Lena Rivers, but her personal favorite was Gretchen.10 Tempest and Sunshine and Lena Rivers were both popular and were eventually made into movies.

Although no exact records of book sales were kept until 1895, one record of book sales during the post Civil War time period was found in the ledger of a wholesale bookstore in the Mississippi Valley. It showed that next to the works of E. P. Ross and Ann S. Stephens, Mary Jane Holmes’ novels were the most popular of an American author.11

She was quoted in The Literary World of June 3, 1882: “I try to avoid the sensational and never deal in murders or robberies or ruined young girls, but rather in domestic life as I know it to exist. I mean always to write a good, pure, and natural story, such as mothers are willing their daughters should read, and such as will do good instead of harm.”12

In addition to writing novels, Mary Jane also published serialized stories in magazines. Her stories for the New York Weekly are credited with saving the publishers, Street and Smith, from bankruptcy. Their circulation went from 38,000 to 100,000 and they paid Mary Jane between $4,000 and $6,000 for each story. For this, Street and Smith presented Mrs. Holmes with a gold watch.13 While most of her stories appeared in the New York Weekly, she also published serialized stories in six other periodicals.14

While the number of critics of Mary Jane’s novels loomed large, the public ignored their comments as they continued to purchase and read her books. Scholars in the late 20th century and early 21st century have reappraised her writing and now recognize her achievements and the value of her work.15

She had the attributes almost lacking in the other domestic novelists—irony and humor.16

The Holmes’ home in Brockport, NY.

After each novel was finished, she and Daniel traveled the world. While on their trips, Mary Jane and Daniel shopped. The “Little Brown Cottage”as she called it was a rambling series of rooms filled with unusual souvenirs from their travels. When the home could no longer contain the collection, Mary Jane added another room.17

During an interview on December 9, 1893 with I. W. Wheeler of The Union Advertiser, Mary Jane’s housekeeper, Mrs. Stewart, described her as: “Slender, stately and tall—with a little stoop to hide it—curly hair and a false fringe she ordered by mail from Chicago, violet eyes, and a sweet mouth. She loved everybody and everybody loved her.”18

When not traveling, Mary Jane was active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, a Regent in the Daughters of the American Revolution, head of the Union Benevolent Society, and taught Sunday School at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. She and Daniel gave generously to causes such as the building of St. Luke’s Parish House, tithed ten percent of their annual income, opened their home to dependents of Union Soldiers during the Civil War, and supported many needy village families.19

Mary Jane Holmes’ obituary in the Democrat and Chronicle Sunday Magazine on October 11, 1942, page 3 is a testament to the love bestowed upon Brockport’s authoress.

“She went to her death wearing the white rose of a blameless life,” said the rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. “The shadow of her passing touched nearly every member of the community she had benefited and befriended. One thousand persons passed by the flower-banked bier of one of America’s most popular novelists. Some of them were distinguished personalities from the big cities of the country where the literati flourished. Most of them were plain people such as her neighbors and many of them recipients of her generous bounty.”20


[1] Francis E. Willard, A woman of The Century, p. 360.

[2] The Union and Advertiser, Dec. 9, 1993.

[3] Ontario County Times, Dec. 9, 1949, Miner, p. 7.

[4] Hart, James D. The Oxford Companion to American Literature, p. 208

[5] Ontario County Times, Dec. 16, 1949

[6] Ibid.

[7] Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, Vol. 25, No. 1, p. 146, 14 Aug 2010

[8] The Nation, Volume LXXXV, October 10, 1907.

[9] Hart, James D, The Oxford Companion to American Literature, p. 377.

[10] The New York Times, Oct. 8, 1907, p. 11.

[11] Willard, p. 360, The Outlook, Oct. 19, 1907, p. 360

[12] Ibid. P. 15

[13] Conversation with Mrs. Willis Knapp, Village of Brockport Historian.

[14] James, Edwards T., p. 208

[15] Quoted in The Post Express, Oct. 7, 1907:

[16] All The Happy Endings by Helen Waite, p. 149/

[17] New York Heritage Digital Collection, William L. White Collection, 1861-1936

[18] Papashvily, p. 147

[19] Rochester History, Vol. X, No. 1, January 1948.

[20] The Democrat and Chronicle Sunday Magazine, October 11, 1942, page 3.

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