Cinderella Always Wins

(Bio of Mary Jane Holmes)

By Andre Norton


Mary Jane Holmes

     Next to Mrs. Southworth the most prolific of the scribbling women, and next to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the best paid of the era’s authoresses, was Mary Jane Holmes, who lifted the Cinderella theme to its highest money making point.

     She was the fourth daughter and fifth of nine children in a New England farmer’s family. The background of the Hawes home was the usual combination of that place and period, hard physical labor and bookishness. But in this environment Mary Jane proved to be a swan among geese. The neighbors at Rice Corners spoke of her as “crazy little Jane” because she was prone to play apart and carry on conversations with the imaginary companions she alone could visualize. Though precocious and solitary in her tastes, she went to the country school at the age of three and studied grammar at six, reading avidly from her earliest years whatever fell into her hands, without supervision or selection. Before she was in her teens she announced with firm decision that she was going to be a writer and told the girls in the school yard long romances of her own devising.

     A quick student, far ahead of her years according to the educational standards for country schools in that day, she passed the simple examination to earn a teacher’s certificate and began teaching herself when she was only thirteen. The struggles of a child schoolmarm were later to serve her with material for such novels as “Meadow Brook”, “Aikenside”, and “The English Orphans.” Her favorite heroine of the future was to be the poor school teacher or governess.

     The first public acknowledgement of her literary aspirations came when she was fifteen and had a poem published in the local newspaper, But a whole new life was about to open for her. Lymen Hawes, an uncle, moved from the narrow New England valley known to the Hayes family since the colonial days, and settled in the then boom territory of western New York State. He sent for Fanny Maria, Mary Jane’s elder sister, to teach in the district school there. But in a short time she married a neighboring farmer. Mary Jane, who had profited by a term or two at the Ontario Female Seminary after following her sister west, then took over Fanny’s school. But she was more ambitious than satisfied and she soon changed to the larger school at Allen Hill and then to Bristol Hill, to which position she was followed by her sister Elizabeth.

     In 1848 she established her own academy for young ladies in an old stone house at Allen’s Hill -- Laurel Hill Seminary. Mary, in order to be near the school, boarded at the tavern kept by Daniel Holmes, and Daniel Holmes, junior, then a student at Yale, began escorting the new headmistress to church and the decorous neighborhood social gatherings. When Mr. Holmes graduated from Yale he was offered a teaching position at a seminary in Versailles, Kentucky. With such an assured future he dared to speak to Nary Jane and on August Ninth 1849, there was a wedding in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at Allen Hill -- a church which had been lovingly banked with flowers by the pupils of the seminary and their mothers. The Holmes’ wedding tour was the journey to their new home in the south. Together they taught in the seminary for a term or two before they took complete charge of a two room rural school at Glen’s Creek and boarded at the home of Dr. Theophilus Steele. This life in Kentucky made a strong impression on Mary. Consciously or unconsciously she was storing up what she saw, heard, and sensed in the scenes about her -- to be put to excellent use later. But the southern years only numbered three. For in 1852 Daniel Holmes was offered a much better position as Latin teacher at the Canandaigua Academy and they returned to New York.

     For the first time since 1844 Mary Jane Holmes found herself with free time as here she was not called upon to teach. She began to write short stories at first, which she sold to the Cincinnati Commercial.

     But there was one more change for the Holmes family before they settled into the peaceful and prosperous routine which was to occupy the rest of their long lives. Daniel Holmes had been, during a short time in the 1840s, a student of the theological institute at Brockport. Now he determined to return there and study law.

     The move was made in 1855 and they found é permanent home at last. Mary Jane Holmes was to be to Brockport what Mrs. Sigourney was to Hartford in earlier days. The whole town knew her, admired her, made her a grand dame, a social arbiter, and a local monument. Daniel Holmes passed his bar examination, held local political offices, and was an official of the Normal School. In 1868 the couple purchased “Brown Cottage”, their home for the remainder of their days. All of her forty novels and volumes of novelettes and short stories were written in Brockport.

      The first full length novel to appear was “Tempest and Sunshine”, which was published in 1854, in it Mrs. Holmes utilized her memories of Kentucky. Crude as it is compared to her later works, it had several features of plot and characterization which were to become her trademark in the busy years ahead. The double heroines, one good, and one evil, the mislaid or suppressed letters, the handsome southerner who was the reward of the good heroine, all made their bow, along with the mentally deranged character whose confession or history aided in unraveling the misunderstanding between the lovers -- at the last possible moment.

     “Tempest and Sunshine” was easily overshadowed by the better construction and characterization of her second book, “English Orphans”, which is still readable today. Again the double heroine -- or triple ones this time -- the misunderstandings between lovers, and all the other points. But interlarded with these are some shrewd and amusing contrasts between town and country society, a detailed picture of life in the first college for women of pre-Civil War period, Mount Holyoke, and scenes from the daily round of a country school teacher. While her pictures of American rural life and of small towns of the period are much more superficial than those given by Susan Warner, and her characters are exaggerated often to the point of ludicrousness, yet now and again bits of authentic social or educational customs stand out. She was writing, frankly, to amuse and entertain, but the world she described was her own and sometimes its realism broke through the lacy melodrama.

     Neither of these first two books were more than average in sales, but with the publication of both “Lena Rivers” and “Meadow Brook” in 1865 she soared to the top of the best seller list and stayed there. Her first publisher was D. Appleton, and then came Miller, Orton and Company. But with the failure of the latter in the fifties she went over to G. W. Carleton and Company who knew just how to exploit the ever widening market of light fiction which grew up in the sixties and seventies.

     Mrs. Holmes wrote steadily and apparently without difficulty, one novel a year. First serial rights went to Street and Smith’s “New York Weekly” and paid her about five thousand dollars per book. Eventually each novel in turn appeared on the book shelves, bound in green cloth, title and author stamped in gold—price – one dollar and fifty cents.

     A tenth of her income went to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Brockport, which claimed not only her substantial financial support, but much of her time, as a Sunday school teacher and worker in the Guild. The steady stream of royalties also paid for the Holmes’ travels, and they traveled extensively, wintering in the south, visiting Norway, Sweden, Egypt and Russia, preferring the lesser known countries to the ordinary European tours. Mrs. Holmes’ travel talks were a bright spot in Brockport society and the money raised by some was used to educate students in both this country and abroad.

     By 1880 her standing in the world of best sellers was so assured she could dictate her own terms to publishers. Many public libraries had ten or twenty sets of her books in constant use, beside the numbers of titles sold for family collections. Fifty thousand copies of a new title or edition were usually bound at one time. And the “New York Weekly” admitted that the appearance of “Lena Rivers” as a serial raised the circulation from ten thousand to fifty thousand in three weeks and brought the magazine up to the one hundred thousand level before the end of the story.

     Her writing habits were regular. In an upstairs library she spent every morning from nine to twelve at her desk, writing a large, finely formed hand which made her finished manuscripts resemble legal documents. But Mrs. Holmes had her prejudices against certain distractions. She bought up all the roosters in the neighboring chicken yards so that their crowing would be eliminated, an event long recalled by her townspeople.

     She was tall, blue-eyed, with brown hair, and spoke with a clear, almost British, accent. Though she abhorred personal publicity she was exceedingly active in town and church affairs. When funds for the establishment of a library and free reading room were needed, it was Mrs. Holmes who headed the committee that planned an entertainment-on the grounds of the normal School. And later a “Dickens Carnival” was given to secure a maintenance fund for the same public project, with Mrs. Holmes again as the chairman; David Holmes played his part in this, appearing as “Smike” in the “Nickolas Nickleby” booth. Again in 1895 she took the leadership of the union Charitable Society. And she not only belonged to but held office in The Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Brockport History Club, as well as St. Luke’s Guild, and the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. There are still living those who can remember her dramatic appearance at the D.A.R. balls, gowned in black velvet with an ermine stole, holding court at one end of the chamber. The thirteen-year-old school mistress had come a long way, Cinderella was now truly queen.

     Though she never had any children of her own, families of her sisters and her neighbors were free of her yard and her time. The iron deer in the front of Brown Cottage made an excellent steed and there were plenty of juvenile riders to share its broad back. In turn the young people of the town shared their treats with her. When the first automobile appeared in Brockport, the young man who drove it offered Mrs. Holmes a ride which she accepted at once. Nor was he at all surprised to be instructed from the rear seat, “Go as fast as you like, Milo, I’ll hold on to my wig.” Mrs. Holmes was the grand dame of Brockport but she was not unapproachable.

     She was traveling when death at last stilled her inductile energy. After a summer at Martha’s Vineyard the Holmes’s were enroute from Worchester to Albany when Mrs. Holmes was taken ill on the train. She rested a while in Albany, but insisted upon completing the journey-home where she died on October Sixth, 1907.

     Through the years her writing underwent a complete change in pace and characterization. She was keenly alive to trends in light fiction and her own answer to the riddle of her great success, “l write what people want,” was perfectly true. A modern critic has only to compare the stilted, sentimental melodrama of “Tempest and Sunshine” with the terse, true excitement of “Lucy Harding” to see how well she was able to adapt to changing tastes. The critics might dub her the “prolific favorite of the unthinking,” but she was not outmoded nor forgotten at the end of her long day in the sun, a changing world had not left her behind.

     Though her novels are primarily domestic, with the accent upon the Cinderella motif, she could depart from that mold -- as she did in “Lucy Harding” (an exciting adventure of an American tourist caught up during a Russian visit in an anti-Czarist plot) or in “The Abandoned Farm” (the story of the struggles of a scientific farmer of the new day to rehabilitate land long gone back to the wild) -- and do it well.

     Her characters in the earlier novels were types. The concealed daughter and the poor school teacher or governess were her favorite heroines, with always a beautiful, but snobbish and cruel, rich girl to act the “ugly sister”. She leaned towards southern heroes but showed little or no interest in the question of slavery and her Negroes were comic rather than pathetic or tragic figures. Death by “decline” or “lung fever” was the best way of disposing of characters to clear the way for a happy ending. And the vulgar countrywoman gossip was used over and over again.

     In her later years she wanted to Write travel books, but by then she was so tied to the treadmill of the yearly “Holmes novel” that there was no escape. In the eighties her novels were issued in ten and twenty-five cent paper editions and hawked on trains. The story of her encounter with the reading public in this respect is well known. She was herself traveling by train and offered her latest novel by a vender. As she refused it the stranger sharing her seat remarked: “Mrs. Holmes is a popular writer, but as for me, I do not think much of her.”

     But the general public did not agree. From 1854 to 1905 she published forty novels besides articles and short stories. She contributed regularly to the “Ladies’ Home Journal”, “The Saturday Evening Post”, “Woman’s Home Companion“, “Lippincotts’ Magazine”, “Demorests Magazine”, and “Frank Leslie’s Popular Weekly.” Six magazines continued to reprint her books even after her death, and serials by her were running as late as 1916.

     The domestic melodrama which flowed so evenly from her pen lent itself well to dramatic adaption and some of her stories still appear on the boards, presented by summer stock companies -- “Tempest and Sunshine” and “Lena Rivers” being favorites.

     “Lena Rivers” was reprinted as a book as late as 1912 and actually had a best seller reception.

     From her contemporaries she won praise for her powers of description her naturalness, her clear concise English, and the faculty to hold reader interest. And the majority of the novels are readable today.

     Her accolade came from a mother and it was the perfect one for a writer of the scribbling era:

     “I have no fear of letting my daughter read them. Because I know they are pure.”

Known Works of Mary Jane Holmes:

Chronological order:

Tempest and Sunshine

Lucy Harding

English Orphans


Homestead on the Hillside

Cousin Hugh

Lena Rivers

Darkness and Daylight

Meadow Brook

Edith Lyle’s Secret

Dora Deane

Family Pride

Cousin Maude

Maggie Miller

Marian Gray


Hugh Worthington

Miss. McDonald

Cameron Pride

Rector of St. Marks

Rose Mather


Ethelyn’s Mistake

Chateau D’Or

Edna Browning

West Lawn



Forest House

Mrs. Hallen’s Companion

Daisy Thornton

Abandoned Farm

Queenie Hetherton

Dr. Hathern’s Daughter

Christmas Stories

Connie’s Mistake

Bessie’s Fortune

Tracy Diamonds


Rena’s Experiment


The Comptons


"The Scribbling Women"
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
Online Rights -
Donated by - Estate of Andre Norton

 Digitized and edited by Jay Watts aka: “Lots-a-watts” ~ May 2015

Duplication (in whole or parts) of this story for profit of any kind NOT permitted.