Critics labeled her books as sentimental and foolish, but Mary J. Holmes wasn’t afraid to wrestle with controversial subjects like slavery and feminism in the 19th century.
The first line of Mary J. Holmes' final book, The Cromptons reads, “The streamer ‘Hatty’ which plied between Jacksonville and Enterprise was late, and the people who had come down from the Brock House to the landing had waited a half an hour before a puff of smoke in the distance told that she was coming.”
The first chapter of , “A Stranger at the Brock House," begins a complex story about love, family and class divide in a very real setting. Not only was the Brock House a real hotel; razed to make way for the Methodist Children’s Home in 1937, but the streamer — “Hatty” or "Hattie"— and its captain are something of legend in Volusia County.
The steamboat “Hattie,” docked at the Brock House, Enterprise, FL
In 1851, Jacob Brock; a northern steam boat captain, traveled to Enterprise and built a wharf on Lake Monroe. He was considered a captain with "a notable reputation for the lavish and original nature of his profanity." In 1851, he used slave labor to complete the Brock House. Built in a northern style, the hotel was said to accommodate around fifty. The hotel became famous for attracting celebrities from all over the world. Among its guests were Grover Cleveland, Ulysses S. Grant, Jay Gould, the Vanderbilts, James Rockefeller, and Gen. William Sherman. Brock operated the first regular steamboat passenger service from Jacksonville to Palatka, and expanding to Enterprise.
Stereograph of the Brock House. 1875.
Holmes’ description of Enterprise is so realistic, there is little doubt she was there to witness not only the beauty, but the cruelty of life on the St. Johns in Antebellum Florida. The steamboat, “Hatty” depicted in Holmes’ novel was a real steamship named for Captain Brock’s daughter.
“'Oh, the river ! — the beautiful river!' she said. 'It brings things back, — the boat I went in ; not like that,'I and she pointed to a large, handsome steamboat lying at the wharf." - The Cromptons
But this isn’t about the history of Enterprise or the age of steamboats on the St. Johns River. It’s about a novel, rich in Florida history and literary value, overlooked in its time, and a writer, snubbed by critics because she wasn’t afraid to write about things white men didn’t want to talk about.
Mary J. Holmes was born in Brookfield, Massachusetts in 1825. Her family lived in a modest household. Her parents, Preston and Fanny Hawes, encouraged intellectual pursuits. She may have also received influence from her uncle Rev. Joel Hawes, also a writer.
Mary J. Holmes — 1897
Holmes published her first story in a local newspaper when she was 15 years old. On August 9, 1849 she married Daniel Holmes, a graduate of Yale College and moved to Versailles, Kentucky, which inspired many of the rural settings in her novels.
The couple traveled extensively, but eventually settled in Brockport, New York where Daniel passed the bar and was involved in local politics while Mary wrote. They had no children. Their happy marriage was the model for many of the romances in her novels.
It was not uncommon at the turn of the century for male critics to classify women writers as sentimental or downplay their value so they did not overshadow their male counterparts. Holmes was a prolific writer, but critics disregarded her work for their “happy endings and predictable characters.”
The Cromptons follows three generations of Florida pioneers as they navigate class divide and slavery in Florida before and after the Civil War. It begins with Eudora, a southern “cracker” belle of Enterprise, who is abandoned by her rich northern lover, because he is too ashamed to acknowledge her. Their daughter Amy is raised by the freed slaves once owned by Eudora's family.
In its time The Cromptons was poorly received by critics, who had acquired a taste for patronizing Holmes’ work. One critic from the Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) published this review in 1902:
“Mary J. Holmes is the author of more than thirty books, and for years has held the affection and admiration of a certain class of fiction readers. She writes love stories of no literary value, but they teach good lessons, where the good are always victorious over the wicked.”
Critics failed to acknowledge her passion for tackling controversial subjects. She often wrote about gender, race, class, slavery, and the Civil War with an ease.
One critic from the New York Times, after more or less reciting the entire plot, said The Cromptons was “thoroughly harmless," and that Holmes could never “stoop to the ignominy of a heroine who hadn’t a ‘flowerlike face,’ or at least, ‘beautiful wistful eyes.’”
Holmes’ main characters were usually women of little means who found themselves in unfair or dangerous situations. Then, using their wit and determination, would problem-solve and create their own happy endings, often in direct opposition to convention.
Books by Mary J. Holmes
In spite of her poor treatment by critics, Holmes's books were popular. Her first book sold 250,000+ copies and she published a total of 39 books, selling more than two million copies in her lifetime; second only to Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Holmes’ work has gained more notice from literary scholars, but it was my interest in Volusia County history that drew me to her work. It may be 100 years late, but I would like to contest the initial reviews of The Cromptons. On the subject of happy endings, I would say, with so little opportunity offered to minorities and women in her time, perhaps Holmes felt they were due a few happy endings. Endings that, with any luck, will outlive the petty remarks of her critics.
The Crompton Family — A Critical Review published in The New York Times, Sept. 13th, 1902
Review of The Cromptons — The Courier-Journal, Louisville KY, Sept 6th, 1902