Working with used books in a physical store, I finally read a novel of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. - Elsie Venner. I savored its depiction of New England life so when I came across another book with Holmes on its spine, and one in bad condition, I started reading it. That book was titled Cousin Maude.
The title page was missing and after the first chapter, I said to myself, “This is like an American Jane Austen. How could the author of Elsie Venner and several more philosophical works write like this?” With internet help, I found that I was reading Mary J. Holmes, an author I had seen upstairs in our store, on shelves that were lower priced vintage. I didn’t know anything about Mary J. Holmes and had confused her with a religious author, Marjorie Holmes.
Mary J. Holmes was born Mary J. Hawes in 1825. From Massachusetts, she married Daniel Holmes who became a lawyer. They lived for a few years in Kentucky, which inspired some of her 39 novels, and then moved to New York State. She traveled extensively. Her novels were best-selling, I was surprised and ignorant to learn.
Cousin Maude was both delightful and funny. Another reason I was so puzzled at thinking Dr. Holmes had written the book was its doctor character, step-father to Maude. He was plumbed after he insisted on walking to the house of his second wife-to-be, for health but suspiciously because he refused to pay a carriage driver. The second wife died too and Maude's future was designated as domestic support to the doctor and his two children, which began the Austen-like social imbroglio concerning Maude and the doctor's daughter. I laughed many times while realizing that Mary J. Holmes had a keen sense of the barriers women experienced. And she also made the doctor's servants into vivid characters, including a black couple who were hoping someday to have a place of their own. But that wasn't the end of the doctor whose next venture topped the romance of the younger set.
The book was a treat, but what I also liked about it was the detailed New England setting and the skill of the novelist in bringing these nineteenth century scenes to life.
I had to try another of her novels, available as e-books. Gretchen was a later work and it began with a sense of mystery. The rich traveler Arthur comes back to his mansion mentally tormented, though he immediately makes plans to renovate rooms for the mysterious Gretchen, a lovely person who Arthur protests is “still a child.” Again, a male character is probed and with the same acerbity that points out the pathos of neglected women when American men could rise. Gretchen became a ridiculous suspense that made me turn the pages. Even though a baby appeared instead of her and mystified the entire community with scant evidence of a German nurse, the author's handling of Arthur still kept the mystery of Gretchen going. Arthur's escape into building and planning his grounds was fascinating. America was built quickly and this character with his vast railroad fortune shows the mania for replicating European buildings and terraces. The book has its romantic twists with the grown girl, raised by a modest family after she was rescued without any acknowledgement.
I really couldn't understand how Mary J. Holmes was forgotten as a novelist. I felt that Austen fans would enjoy her American parallels. But she isn't so finely crafted as Austen and, because she was prolific and so successful in her time, she was probably allowed to draw out scenes and digress with minor characters.
Now I'm reading Bessie's Fortune. This book has a more serious vein running through it, having to do with a terrible guilt and secret event that affects a family. The plot is different from the others in that there are connections to England and Wales. Mary J. Holmes spikes her humor here with polite barbs about lifestyle differences between her British and American relatives. Bessie's family is gentry and related to a Lady Jane but they are down on their money. Her parents are desperate enough to go to Monte Carlo, splendidly described. While they cling to respectability, they gamble with a young peer who has dressed as a woman so he won’t be recognized. It looks like Bessie will be sent to America to stay with her miserly aunt.
I noticed at Amazon that reviewers were liking Gretchen as much as I had. There are others who are reading this author because of her portrayal of women, class struggles, black characters, and slavery. Though she has been called sentimental, and outcomes can be heartwarming like Frances Hodgson Burnett, her American characters might be called Dickensian in their eccentric personalities. Her books are a trip to the America of the mid-1800's.