Sunday, 18 November 2012

Read in 2012 - 38: Aikenside

When I was doing research for writing this review, I was amazed to find out that the author of "Aikenside", Mary Jane Holmes, at one time was almost as popular as Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the number of books she sold was second only to the latter. 

Mary Jane Holmes lived from 1825 to 1907. She was one of nine siblings and had an economically modest but intellectually encouraging upbringing in a small town in Massachusetts. When she was only 13, she started teaching school; her first short story was published when she was 15. Considering these activities at such an early age, I was surprised to learn that she was already 24 when she married, and 29 when her first novel was published. Although the marriage was childless, it must have been a good and happy relationship, because (according to Wikipedia) she often modeled the good man-woman relationships in her books on the one she and her husband Daniel enjoyed.

Of the 39 novels she wrote, "Aikenside" was probably first published around 1881. Wikipedia states that 
"Portraying domestic life in small town and rural settings, she examined gender relationships, as well as those of class and race. She also dealt with slavery and the American Civil War, with a strong sense of moral justice. Since the late 20th century, she has received fresh recognition and reappraisal, although her popular work was excluded from most 19th-century literary histories compiled by men."
All this sounds very noble, doesn't it?
But I am not ashamed to say that more than once I considered not finishing this book, since sometimes it was really too hard to bear. I have no problem with sentimental stuff in books or films, but a lot of "Aikenside" was just too religiously sweet and dramatic for my liking. Still, I read it all, and it ended just like I guessed it would - all things came together in the end to make life good for Maddy, the heroine who has her faith strengthened by the hardships she has to overcome.  

When we meet Maddy for the first time, she is 14 1/2 years old and applies for the job of school teacher in her small rural community (sounds familiar?). While she is not accepted, the two men who form the impromptu school committee both fall in love with her - involuntarily, and unnoticed at first, even by themselves. Now, if you ask me, men in their mid-twenties have no business wanting a girl who is not yet 15 for their wife, and yet that is exactly what at least one of them soon admits to be feeling.

Maddy (who is, of course, a beautiful orphan and grows up with modest and god-fearing grandparents in a humble cottage) is so desperate because of not getting the coveted teaching job that she falls seriously ill. That illness becomes a turning point in her life; she ends up becoming indeed a teacher/companion to the little girl living at Aikenside (the manor near the small town where she lives), and receives herself an education in New York which transforms her from naive little cottage girl to sophisticated beauty - who then has to abandon the luxurious lifestyle when her grandmother dies and there is nobody who can take care of her grandfather and her mentally ill uncle back at the old cottage. 
Ah, the obstacles seem unsurmountable, but by spending endless nights on her knees in fervent prayer, Maddy is rewarded by getting the husband she wants and loves so much, and her happiness is untarnished when we find her again in the last chapter, a mother of two, and proudly installed at... well, I think it won't surprise anyone if I tell you that it is Aikenside where she reigns then.

In between the events of Maddy's life, the reader encounters a lady who carefully guards a secret from her past (something that is screamingly obvious almost from the first time said lady appears in the story), and of course, that lady undergoes a transformation for the better, too.

So, all that improvement, coupled with sentences such as this one:
"...the hallowed memories of her puritiy and goodness - memories which would yet mold the proud, impulsive Guy into the earnest, consistent Christian which Ludy in her life had desired that he should be, and which Maddy rejoiced to see him."
made me not want to read another book by Mary Jane Holmes, I'm afraid.
I'm glad that not all books from that time are like this, as you will see from my next review.


  1. I actually own a number of books by this author! One or two were more readable...Our summer cottage on the shore of Lake Chautauqua in western New York was built in 1879 and we bought it in 1981. At some point in the 80s I spent several years collecting books that I thought would have been popular in the early years of the life of our house. There was a lovely sort of huge junk store in several buildings in a small crossroads community about ten miles away, Stockton, NY. They had in those early years a book division where books were ten cents each or 12 for a dollar! I collected many. But slowly that whole enterprise went downhill, changed hands, went further downhill and is no more....But there was also a bookstore west of the lake, Barbara Berry's book which had a room with old books for $2.00 each and I collected more there. It was fun. Many of the books are old children's books, but some were popular books like Mary Holmes's, usually but not always too religious and too contrived for me taste. But it did lead me to explore a bit about the history of American women authors of the 1800s. There were few money making opportunities for women in those days, but writing was one and there were a number of quite successful female authors.

    I think you may be excused from reading any more of her work. I can't even recall the titles of any of the ones I liked.

    1. Kristi, those book shops sound wonderful, and I suppose I would have spent many hours (and some dollars) there, too.
      The most popular (and her first) novel by Mary Holmes was "Tempest and Sunshine", according to Wikipedia.

  2. Oh, my grandmother would have loved this! Worthy, moral, Victorian tales...did you ever come across A Peep Behind the Scenes (I've forgotten the author)? At least your heroine doesn't seem to have died a tragic (but very spiritual) death at the end!

    1. Frances, I don't think I know "A Peep Behind The Scenes"; I own "Behind The Scenes at the Museum" by Kate Atkinson, though (not quite a moral Victorian tale...!).
      You are right, Maddy does not die, but her path is lined with dead bodies that would make any Scandinavian mystery thriller author green with envy.

  3. Another author for me not to worry about methinks!

  4. Reminds me of L.M. Alcott and her description of her own works as "moral pap for the young." She, though, unlike this lady, wanted to write more substantial stuff.

    1. There are several of Alcott's books I have read, and some I own, and I liked them all. Yes, they are meant to be morally uplifting and all that, but Alcott somehow manages it with more charm, and humour.