Mary Holmes was one of the very first writers to be developed by Street & Smith. She helped ensure the success of their new serial The New York Weekly in 1859. She began working for the firm before they specifically targeted a female audience and her work was intended for the general audience of the storypaper, though later it would be included often in women’s romance series.
When Holmes first came to the attention of Street & Smith, the partners had just purchased the storypaper from their former employer and they needed to boost circulation in order to survive. They were looking for a writer who could attract large numbers of readers–one who could be as popular as E.D.E.N. Southworth, then the reigning storypaper queen. Holmes proved to be exactly what they needed. Her first story for Street & Smith, Marian Grey, appeared in 1859 and was said to have saved the firm from bankruptcy by increasing readership by 50,000 (Papashvily 145-146, Noel 112). When her first story appeared Street & Smith announced that they were “snapped up with an avidity which proves the fair writer’s popularity with the masses, and fairly entitles her to the name of ‘QUEEN OF THE HUMAN HEART” (qtd Noel 111).
Noel notes that “one of her books had been favorably commented upon by such a sedate periodical as the North American Review–although it was hard to account for such an aberration on its part” (Noel 111). Noel, one of the first to write a history of the storypaper business in the United States, disdained the new genre of sensational romance that was emerging in the storypapers and she criticized Holmes’ work thus:
“Mrs. Holmes’ stories were love stories pure and simple — dependent for their sensationalism purely upon overwrought emotional “situations.” Not that these situations were created through any real conflict of character or thought or feeling. Mrs. Holmes was far too incompetent a writer to cast aside the customary aids of forged letters, disguises, and accidental meeting. Her ingenuity — which she possessed in quantity — consisted in thinking up the most artificial tragedies through which her heroines might suffer in patience and fortitude, as well as in anguish and tears” (112).
While Noel is critical of the elements of “highly wrought” fiction so central to Holmes’ work and favored by the readers of the New York Weekly, she does capture the basic elements of the sensational fiction. But Holmes’ readers did not share in the negative view of later critics and her later work, such as Lena Rivers, would go on to be enormous best sellers–making her one of the most popular writers of her day.
Noel, Mary. Villains Galore: The Heyday of the Popular Story Weekly.
New York: Macmillan, 1954.
Papashvily, Helen White. All The Happy Endings: A Study of the
Domestic Novel in America, the Women Who Wrote It, the Women
Who Read It, in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Harper and Bros., 1956.